Modern slavery for job seekers

Or the pursuit of non-jobs in capitalist societies

Scene from “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)

Looking for jobs is the worst job of all. Finding a job has never been an easy task, but, especially nowadays, the huge competition found in big capitalist cities makes you perceive everyone as “your enemy”, including your friends; at times including yourself.

Sometimes, despite being young and full of energy, despite having plenty of skills, university studies or professional experience, despite your eagerness to learn and your motivation, you are not good enough for the market. You feel invisible and undervalued, and every day you go home without a job in your hands you have a sense of defeat. Some days you even forget how much you are worth — even though you know you are worth a lot!

As it turns out, the openness of the markets in liberal societies has a huge drawback, substantially for young people, because it has increased competition to almost unbearable levels for job seekers. The changes brought by globalisation — the global interconnection and the readily available access to the new technologies that enable it— have multiplied by millions your potential competitors, rendering the job of finding a job an arduous one.

We are told that we have to be the best: obtain the best marks, be leaders, be someone of importance with an important job, know about everything… and we all get caught up in a never-ending race to be the best, just as the system wants us to be. But even though people are more and more qualified — it is often said that we are the most qualified generation of all time — , overall there are fewer opportunities due to the increasing specificities for each position.

Whether it is true that capitalist systems have diversified the labour market and stimulated the emergence of working opportunities, these have become more and more specialised over time, resulting in the toughening of the criteria to be eligible for a job. Sometimes it feels you would need a lifetime to be fully qualified for a certain role.

The pressure is such that you might find yourself taking a job you don’t particularly like, enrolling in courses you don’t feel inclined to or working in an area you are not interested in… It’s the employee, and the society as a whole, who has to adapt to fit in the market, and it’s the needs of the market the ones that prevail, not the other way around.

Scene from “The Crowd” (1928)

But the system has it all figured out and it has come up with a fantastic way to provide the workers with the necessary tools to fulfil the needs of the market: free work.

Yes, you read it right: free work.

During my job hunting, I have come across way too many advertised positions for which the ideal candidate would have university studies, often including a MA degree, plus thorough knowledge of two or more languages, a few months (or years) of professional experience and expertise in such and such fields, as well as full-time availability for a minimum of three to six months. Then, as you scroll down the page and get to the “what we offer” section, there, in tiny letters, almost invisible to the eye, it reads: non-remunerated.

They call these positions “internship” or “work placement” or “junior position”, probably because “slavery” is no longer legal according to the human rights law (funny enough, all internships offered by the UN don’t include remuneration for the selected candidate).

As outrageous as this is, the real problem here is that these so-called “jobs” are not the exception, but almost the rule. I won’t provide a percentage to try to validate my claim with misguided figures (like biased mass media do), but, from my experience, at least half of the positions I had an interest in were non-remunerated, which leaves you with only half of the possibilities, that is, if you decide to disregard the ones that don’t offer any type of monetary compensation for your time and effort.

Because what’s even more alarming about these positions is that people do take them. Some people willingly accept a highly-skilled, full-time position for free. People under pressure. Desperate people overwhelmed by the low number of suitable opportunities and their apparently insufficient qualifications. People who fall in the trap of voluntary servitude to the system, convinced that it would be the way through to the job they actually want.

In accepting such a position, these people are succumbing to the greed and the tyranny of the system. With their behaviour, they are indirectly consenting to this exploitation. What’s more, they are sustaining the misleading figures of the system that show a decrease in the unemployment rate, simply because once a contract is signed, the person is immediately taken off the list of unemployed population, regardless of the remuneration of the position, which, in this case, is none. These figures are later used to justify that the system is working, even if the reality tells us otherwise. By voluntarily giving up their employment rights, this group harms the rights of every employee and job seeker, and of the society as a whole.

However, as easy as putting the blame on individuals might be, accountability should be sought elsewhere: within the system.

How come democratic societies allow this breach of moral obligation towards the employee and leave their citizens unprotected and vulnerable in the hands of entreprises? It seems to me the only rights — and benefits — , that are being protected are those of multinationals and big corporations, whose profits are unsurprisingly experiencing a substantial increase.

Looking through history, we might compare ourselves with simple peasants, paying tribute to the powerful with the sweat of their brow, but, just like simple peasants, we might also join and start a revolution to win our rights back. As long as there is one single person willing to work for free, free work will continue to be. It is in our power, young job seekers, future workers, to make a stand and say no, it is our responsibility to draw the line at what is it not acceptable anymore, and change it.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.