Fade Street and the New Precariat

While the recession has been disastrous for hundreds of thousands of Irish people it has also represented a major opportunity for unscrupulous employers. A new generation of talented young Irish graduates are increasingly expected to work long hours for nothing as 'interns'. The depressingly predictable response of our national broadcaster has been to cast this grinding exploitation as the very last word in glamour. Angela Nagle takes up the story.

Horrible D4 girls make vindictive expressions at one another while chomping on salad. You wouldn't think it would be quite so entertaining but every week many of us watch RTÉ's Fade Street through the gaps between our fingers. Its two main characters live in an apartment and do cool paid media internships, which primarily involve hair twirling, sighing, chatting with comedic homosexuals and hailing taxis to travel ridiculously short distances.

Louise works as an intern in Stellar magazine and Dani worked, for a while, as an intern with MCD productions. In real life the apartment they live in costs €1,600 a month, Stellar offers no internships and MCD offers many internships involving long hours and hard work but they are, sadly, completely unpaid.

Internships are nothing new and have been a staple of the more glamorous media professions in America for generations. Here, they crept in as a norm during the Celtic Tiger. It is commonplace for all kinds of media companies, from graphic design to film to print journalism, to employ an endless rotation of unpaid interns; interns who often need a degree in their subject, additional experience and a willingness to work as long and hard as is required indefinitely in order to get the position. Not so common are the kinds of careers that young people think all of this free labour will one day earn them.

Since the recession began, in the absence of paid labour and opportunities for people skilled in particular areas, internships have become even more of an expectation in Ireland and are increasingly looking less like the first rung of the career ladder and more like an excuse for free labour.

Esther Lynch, Ictu's Legal and Social Affairs Officer paints a picture of interning that is quite different from Fade Street's depiction:

"People hope that if they go to work and they keep their head down and work very hard and if they demonstrate how good they are they'll be kept on but that is unlikely to be the case for most people. This is the worst kind of exploitation because it is playing on people's hopes. At the moment the employment legislation says that an employer can't discriminate in their recruitment practices for work and what is happening is that employers think if they call somebody an intern they can avoid all of that. So if they look wrong, they're the wrong colour, they're the wrong age, they're the wrong social background, the employer thinks they'll be able to avoid all of this but people who feel that they have been discriminated against as interns have the same case to make as they would if it were a paid job. I'd like people to bear in mind that there are also anti-victimisation provisions in the legislation so if you take a case and win and the employer starts to pick on you there are very serious penalties that will be placed on the employer."

In the UK groups like the Carrotworkers Collective are beginning to organise workers in these new and highly precarious media and cultural industries. But with job losses in every sector there is quite an uphill battle to be fought.

What happens when the trickle down effect of this degradation of labour rights effects every sector? The state employment and training agency, FÁS, offers hundreds of 'work experience' positions in window cleaning, tyre fitting, shop floor work and forklift operating, sometimes for up to nine months. The Irish government's complicity in this trend, which also punishes small businesses who try to pay their workers fairly, means that they are fostering exploitation not only among the hardest hit workers in the country but those within that group who are the most eager to work and too trusting for their own good. At the same moment as irate callers can be heard on the airwaves discussing what should be done about lazy dole cheats, those who are naïve enough are being sent out to clean other people's windows for free.

Along with the €1 cut to the minimum wage, the government announced their plans for 15,000 new training schemes, which will begin in March, to get the unemployed off the couch. 5,000 of these will be administered through FÁS and will be full time jobs in which the employee works for their dole; another 5,000 will be community service, administered by the Department of Social Protection. Failure to accept the role will result in reduction of welfare payments. With 444,000 people currently on the Live Register, this development suggests that the government lacks any real plan or motivation to create real jobs and intends to continue hacking away at hard won labour rights instead, with no real benefit to the economy.

There are however some aspects of Fade Street that do reflect real life in Ireland: the ability of the most stupid, talentless and undeserving members of the elite to succeed. No matter how dreadful they are at their jobs, the principal characters still end up with an apartment on the desirable thoroughfare that lends its name to the series. The most delightful piece of reality on the show, one which punctures and mocks the whole vulgar Celtic Tiger fantasy, is Paul Furlong, whose Facebook fan page now has more fans than the show's own fanpage.

With his emotional inarticulacy, Irish accent, lack of fashion sense, inability to act and deep-tissue-level inability to be either sophisticated or ostentatious, Paul reminds us of what most Irish people are really like. Baffled by the behaviour of the 'fuckin eejits' around him, it is impossible to imagine Paul sipping a cocktail in Pygmalion or looking right in skinny jeans but it is equally hard to imagine him eagerly accepting an unpaid job in either a glamorous media industry or in forced community service. His fans know he'd rightly tell them 'You fuck off and you fuck off'. Paul, we salute you!

Angela Nagle is a doctoral student, film critic and independent journalist.

(Image via alistairhamilton on Flickr)