OPINION: Entry-level discrimination: internships & the cycle of privilege

In late 2005, a young student from the Eastern Cape nearing the end of her journalism degree received an email from a women's glossy. It detailed the fact that despite her being an incredible candidate for the job on offer, the fact that she did not have a driver's licence and car meant that they could not hire her. In many entry-level jobs and internships, cars are currency. She argued that given this country's historical economic equality, this was unfair and discriminatory. They hired her. She shouldn't have had to send that email. That young girl was Milisuthando Bongela, who would go on to become an award-winning fashion journalist and social commentator. She was almost locked out.

As #FeesMustFall highlights the multiple sites of exclusion in higher education and their societal echoes, we must also remain aware that the working world that students enter into is not immune to the same pitfalls. It is one founded on the same kind of privilege and exclusion that is built into the way that internships, and some entry-level jobs, are designed.

Young people are continually told, " if you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone", while reality is far removed from this rose-tinted image. We are fed dreams like "you can be anything, if you just work hard enough", and instead find obstacles in places where promised clear paths to success. For the privileged, these obstacles are simply imagined, and can be wished away at will. For the oppressed, these obstacles are hyper-real and inescapable.

Last week, an advertisement for an internship at fashion magazine, Marie Claire, provoked online uproar. For a full day's work, the internship pays R30 a day, in a city where that equates to the cost of a cup of coffee, with a little change.

This is not unique. Similar internships detail a list of requirements like a driver's licence, car, laptop, smartphone and even being a first language English speaker. These can only be met by a particular kind of privileged graduate who is, given patterns of inequality in this country, most likely to be white.

In a country where inequality is laid bare, you don't have to go looking for it. It is not enough to offer 'opportunities' without acknowledging issues of access. From internships to the upper reaches of senior management, the circle of pale-moneyed privilege remains intact in all sectors - consistently and constantly reproducing itself.

The issues highlighted by Marie Claire's internship offer are relevant across multiple sectors, from policy to human rights, media and other organisations.

In 'Meritocracy for Sale', a piece on a UN internship that mistakenly went up for auction with bidding set at $22,000, Sarah Kendzior argues that, "In the post-employment economy, jobs are privileges, and the privileged have jobs." We live in a world where, "Privilege is recast as perseverance, and 'personal wealth' is often required to gain access to the opportunities that are meant to help you gain access to full-time, meaningful employment."

Kendzior further points out that unpaid internships:

…send the message that work is not labour to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with "exposure" and "experience". The promotion of unpaid labour has already eroded opportunity - and quality - in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

While focus has been on jobs in media, government internships that offer amounts like R54,000 a year, also, on some level, contribute to exclusion. Unless staying with parents, other relatives or friends who shoulder some of the costs, having access to transport, or (crucially) living in urban areas, some young people are still excluded from access to these 'opportunities'. There are exceptions, and one such standout is the _ Mail & Guardian_, a paper that is going through difficulties, yet is still managing to offer three interns a monthly allowance of R10,000.

But the issues are beyond remuneration. An internship is meant to be meaningful, equipping young people with skills and experience that enables them to access fulltime employment, learning from experienced mentors, and getting an introduction to the landscape they want to work in. But they are often plagued with young people made to do menial tasks only, not being taken seriously or heard in boardrooms, and being locked out of making contributions above a certain level. They are prone to exploitation without the promised transfer of skills, with the dominant culture endorsing the idea that they should 'be grateful' to simply be in the room. Additionally, spaces of employment often not sensitive to what it means to be, for instance, a young black women in the workplace. As such they are tailored to the experience of one kind of, privileged intern - with the same level of respect, acknowledgement afforded to all (as if an office can be removed from the social issues we face).

In a job market where experience is valued, internships are for many young people, a way to get a foot in the door and gain access. But interns consistently find themselves part of a greater percentage of "desperate, unskilled and inexperienced labour that is systemically undervalued and thus underpaid", as Gugulethu Mhlungu argues. The issues with the way internships are structured and offered are multiple, and we need to recognise all of them to find a way to enhance both the pay and the experience on offer.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.