The concept of internship is a relatively modern arrival on the shores of this country, and there can be little question that it is a sign of the times. Young people, who now have to pay to study for a degree, now seem to be expected to work for nothing, regardless of what happens at the end of their studies. If they’re unable to find a job that pays – and there still aren’t many of those about at the moment in many parts of the country – they may be forced to work in order to receive benefits. If they want a job that they might actually enjoy, meanwhile, they are likely to be forced into internships, working without pay with only some vague promises about the “experience” that they will receive as a reward for doing so. It’s a pretty damning indictment of the attitudes that this country seems to have adopted in recent years that such a state of affairs is treated with a shrug of the shoulders by so many.
It is comes as little surprise to find out that Premier League football clubs are involved in this singularly grubby and exploitative business. After all, modern professional football is, in many respects, modern neo-capitalism in excelsis, a series of private monopolies masquerading as a “free market” which has become so corrupted by big money that it scarcely resembles a sport any more. Football clubs are more than happy to throw around eye-watering amounts of money on the status symbols of excess – at the time of writing, fifty-six of the ninety-two managers of clubs in the Premier League and Football League have been in their positions for less than a year, a figure that is not only a testament to the short-termism of the culture of the modern football club but also raises questions about how much money may have drained out of those clubs in compensation packages this season – but, it seems, when it comes to the less glamorous positions at clubs, money is a little harder to come by.
This week, the government referred one hundred companies to be investigated by HMRC under the suspicion that they might be breaking the law through their use of unpaid staff. The use of interns in professional football, however, seems to be on the rise at the moment, though, with nine Premier and Football League clubs – Dagenham & Redbridge, Wycombe Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal, Millwall, Huddersfield Town, Reading, Wigan Athletic, Watford and Cardiff City – all currently advertising unpaid internships on the pages of UK Sport’s website at the time of writing. That, of course, is the Arsenal owned by Stan Kroenke (estimated net worth: £1.8bn), the Cardiff City owned by Vincent Tan (estimated net worth: £757m), the West Bromwich Albion that is owned by Jeremy Peace (estimated net worth: £40m), the Wigan Athletic owned by Dave Whelan (net worth: £200 million), the Reading FC owned by Anton Zingarevich and John Madejski (combined net worth: £635m)… and so on, and so forth.
Swansea City recently advertised for performance analyst to work for eleven months shortly before announcing a £2m dividend to its owners. Dagenham & Redbridge, whose average attendance of 1,839 this season is the second lowest in the entire Football League, are currently advertising four unpaid positions. It could be argued that the complexity of the modern game requires “sports scientists” and “analysts” (although it’s not an argument that is a particularly easy sell), but it is difficult to find a counter which holds much water to the charge that if that club – or indeed any club – cannot afford to hire skilled individuals at a reasonable rate to do this job, then they shouldn’t have one at all. Arguments in favour of internships become all the more flawed when we look at clubs such as Swansea City, Reading or Cardiff City, for whom vast amounts of money are a fact of life. We are right to applaud Swansea for having made their club profitable. This, however, doesn’t exclude it from criticism in relation to this grubby little circus.
Of course, this may even be all the more accentuated in professional football because the highest profile earners in the business earn such disproportionately large amounts of money, and this is something that often seems to be done with a degree of willing profligacy. There is no justification, ever, for not paying somebody for a day’s work in a commercial organisation, and when those interns spend their time surrounded by people whose bank accounts are becoming ever fatter with pay levels for which the only justification ever given is that blanket catch-all “market forces” (a phrase which stops being used quite so much when they overheat and they find themselves fending off winding up orders), the sense that the world in the twenty-first century is set to be a world in which a few own everything whilst most own nothing seems all the more inevitable.
It is to be hoped that the government will intervene in an area of employment that, we might think, should be illegal in a country in which there is a minimum wage by law, but there is little reason, when we look at their policy choices in other areas, to optimistic that anything will be done to lance this particular boil. High demand for popular jobs is no justification for clubs to push the wages for those positions down to zero. When young people have to not only work hard but now also pay to get qualifications, upon obtaining them they should be faced with a working environment in which the only environment they can get a job or get experience is one which reduces them to serfs, while all around them are millionaires. It’s greed, pure and simple, and supporters of clubs that stuck their noses in this particular trough should be shaming them into giving up a practice that is immoral on every level.
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