The #WMP Campaign was only ever run by a handful of organisers and like many efforts; it has become a casualty of circumstance and reached its end (for now) in Dublin. We learned a few things and we’re sharing those experiences in the hope that others can build on our efforts in the future.
During the last months of 2014, about ten organisations were invited to a meeting to discuss setting up what would later be called the #WorkMustPay Campaign. The agenda called for a change of tactics in how we challenge JobBridge and free internship culture. It proposed that we acknowledge that JobBridge was now deeply unpopular due to efforts by leftists and unions but that attempts to influence government policy had been an abject failure. The agenda outlined how we should ignore the head and instead hack at the knees by directly challenging the businesses that profit from free JobBridge labour with the aim of making the scheme unworkable on the ground.
This would be achieved by picking a target business, protesting them, shaming them and convincing them that they should pay their workers the basic respect of at least a minimum wage. Targets would be businesses where protests would be effective (e.g. retail) and actions would cease once we got confirmation of a paid position replacing the JobBridge internship. This was a more combative approach than previous efforts and the first meeting was not without tension; resulting in only three of the invited groups signing up to this platform. The main arguments raised against this proposal regarded: the legality of the actions, whether the tactics would be effective, a reluctance regarding confrontation and an aversion to non-media focused campaigning.
In the end, #WMP proved these doubts wrong with a handful of dedicated activists from the Connolly Youth Movement, Sinn Féin Republican Youth and Unite Youth Dublin (later joined by comrades from the CWU Youth Committee and the The Workers Party). The main contribution of our campaign was that we ensured that 15+ workers earned at least a minimum wage by eliminating JobBridge positions one-by-one through our protests.
This took place after years of the Irish state, many trade unions and most unemployed representative groups encouraging us to accept the idea of unpaid labour for 6-9 months as some sort of improvement in our conditions. We refused to accept this future for Irish workers and showed that an alternative was possible.
They Exploit Us: Lets Exploit Them
The traditional approach to campaigning against JobBridge was heavily focused on media stunts, small protest marches and the use of petitions. There is no doubt that these efforts helped turned popular opinion against JobBridge but there was one problem: none of them had removed a single internship.
A brief scroll through the #WMP Campaign Updates page will provide enough evidence to show that directly challenging businesses was a very effective way of knocking out JobBridge placements. The reasons for this were established in correspondence with exploiters where it became apparent that: (1) most were taking on a JobBridge intern because they didn’t expect it to become public knowledge, (2) they regarded free labour as an entitlement because their competitors also used it. Making it public knowledge that a company was using JobBridge usually shook their confidence and then the subsequent #WMP protest convinced them that it really wasn’t worth it.
Sometimes businesses removed their adverts after our initial warning email and correspondence. Sometimes we had to take our arguments to their front door with hour long pickets at their entrances. In these cases we used chants, leaflets and placards to get our point across. The public were usually very supportive and while we were very loud; the peaceful nature of our protests meant there were never any arrests. Notable exceptions involved employers who were aggressive in exercising their right to use of free labour and in one instance this culminated in the physical assault of our activists. In that example, we responded with a mass-protest and eliminated the internship a week later.
The key points to take from this are that: our tactics worked, they cost nothing and that direct action got results.
Agitating and Educating
Eliminating JobBridge internships was the focus but #WMP activists also used a range of tactics to challenge the acceptability of free labour. These included:
- Using national media as a platform to raise our arguments
- Giving a voice to young workers to tell people about their JobBridge experiences
- Raising anti-JobBridge sentiment on social-media
- Making contributions at public meetings
- Building links with similar campaigns in the UK
- Exposing employers with a record of exploitation
- Sending a delegation to Brussels to challenge EU policy
Our greatest non-protest action involved a successful Freedom of Information request which exposed the names of over eleven thousand JobBridge employers.
Mass Exploitation and the Limitations of our Campaign
Our FOI request highlighted that over 16 thousand businesses and organisations have used JobBridge interns. This points towards an endemic level of exploitation which has permeated every sector of employment and even included unionised workplaces. We never claimed that #WMP was a solution; just that it would eliminate internships, build confidence among young activists and educate young workers about their rights. However, a response to this problem is still badly needed nationally.
Many unions have publicly condemned JobBridge but their organised workplaces have used interns and these employers haven’t been challenged. It is obvious that this situation needs to be remedied immediately. Regarding political parties, the danger is that JobBridge will not be abolished but ‘reformed’ into a ‘fairer’ system down the line. We view this as an unacceptable argument as unpaid labour has lowered the bar so far that young workers now aspire to a minimum wage and view anything above it as an unexpected bonus. The very nature of work, what we expect from it and our rights has been changed by JobBridge.
Workers need jobs that will provide them with a living wage and decent conditions; anything less than this should be opposed. Unions and leftists need to make this our most basic demand and actively defend the right to a living wage.
Somewhere the business owners who chanced their arm by advertising for free labour and ended up with a protest at their door; are still occasionally glancing up and expecting to flinch at the boisterous chants of #WMP activists.
Our legacy is in the deterrent we briefly provided against the normalisation of unpaid internships as well as the 15+ workers who ended up earning a wage because of our efforts.
These are small but tangible achievements so walk with pride comrades, we did well.
One last time and we’ll call this a wrap:
‘Demand a Living Wage!’
Work! Must! Pay!‘