In the plush London offices of a renowned publishing company, aspiring journalist Amalia Illgner begins her internship with a spring in her step. But after two months of grueling work – paid at far below the U.K.’s National Minimum Wage – she begins to wonder if this opportunity really is everything it’s cracked up to be.
Born in Colombia to a German father and a Trinidadian mother, Illgner grew up in Sydney, Australia. An aspiring writer, she began her career in the United Kingdom, creating copy for a company that organized bachelor and bachelorette parties. But after more than half-a-decade in that industry, she decided to make the move to journalism.
However, journalism is a competitive industry, so Illgner decided that an internship would be a good way to get started. And unsurprisingly, she was far from the first job hunter to reach a similar conclusion. In fact, according to recent research, as many as 70,000 people are currently serving as interns in the U.K. alone.
And shockingly, approximately a third of these workers are not paid for their time. But with most of the internships occurring fields such as fashion, politics and journalism, Illgner was prepared to face these conditions. So, she eagerly applied for a position at the monthly lifestyle magazine and radio station Monocle – despite the fact that remuneration was limited to just $40 per day.
In fact, the pay offered by Monocle worked out at a shocking $4.70 an hour – less than half of the U.K.’s $10 minimum wage. For context, that translates to a monthly income of around $800 – far less than the estimated $1,365 minimum needed to survive in London. Nonetheless, Illgner faced stiff competition for the internship.
Eventually, Illgner triumphed over dozens of applicants, becoming one of five interns to start at Monocle in the summer of 2017. And for two months, she would become responsible for a dizzying array of tasks at the magazine’s headquarters in Marylebone, an affluent London neighborhood.
At first glance, Monocle appears every inch the modern success story – a print magazine somehow still thriving in the digital age. But even though the company was valued at around $47 million at the time that Illgner was interning there, little of that money seemed to be trickling down to those at the bottom of the ladder.
Yet despite the contrast between her meager wage and Monocle’s plush offices, complete with their designer furnishings and heated toilets, Illgner was enthusiastic about her internship at first. And even when she was confronted with an epic, 18-page intern handbook on her first day, she remained keen.
In the handbook, since leaked to the media, Monocle lays out in alarming detail everything that the magazine expects its interns to deliver. And as well as specifying what should be worn and where lunch should be eaten, it even goes so far as to explain exactly how drinks should be served to visiting guests.
Working across Monocle’s editorial and radio departments, Illgner soon found herself taking care of everything from research briefings and fact-checking to greeting important guests. Sometimes, she was required to arrive as early as 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the morning broadcast – one of only two people in the entire building to endure such an early start.
According to Illgner, Monocle’s policy of employing five interns at once is a savvy strategy. Because each individual is always hoping to stand out from the crowd and kick-start their career, they’re constantly competing against each other. And as a result, they are always striving to take on additional tasks.
For Monocle, the benefits are obvious. Instead of forking out thousands of pounds in wages for admin assistants, researchers and production assistants, it can have interns do the work for a pittance. Of course, the magazine argues that its internships offer an invaluable opportunity to get ahead in journalism – but is that really the case?
Illgner has stated that interns at Monocle were encouraged to pitch stories in order to get themselves noticed. So when she received an email requesting ideas for the brand’s new Summer Weekly paper, she seized the opportunity to be involved. And after settling on a story about the West Bank’s Palestinian Museum, she was delighted to receive her first commission.
However, the task was demanding, and Illgner even found herself being pestered during her free time to fact-check her own article. But as she performed the last-minute adjustments, Illgner began to realize that she was the only person involved who was being asked to give up her time for next to nothing. And if the successful Monocle could afford to pay others a decent wage, then why couldn’t they do the same for her?
Eventually, Illgner’s article was a success, making it onto the front page of Monocle’s Summer Weekly. However, this only served to heighten the intern’s sense of injustice. Apparently, some brands had paid up to $20,000 to advertise in the newspaper. And yet the author of the publication’s lead story had not been financially compensated for her efforts.
Disillusioned with her internship, Illgner began to see the entire system as little more than an elitist tool. Recognizing that it was only her partner’s financial support that allowed her to work for such a paltry wage, she realized the inherent unfairness of the situation. “The hard, ugly truth was that my byline was snatched away from hundreds – if not thousands – of qualified freelance and unemployed journalists who can’t afford to not get paid,” she wrote in The Guardian in March 2018.
According to media experts, Illgner’s suspicions were bang on. In fact, some believe that unpaid internships – which are only accessible to those with other sources of support – are purposefully designed in order to limit opportunities to the middle classes. Dubbed “opportunity hoarding,” it’s a system that makes it very difficult for anyone from a low-income background to break into certain professions.
Interestingly, Illgner’s experiences seemed to support these claims. And even though one of her fellow interns supported themselves through a second job, the majority had parents who picked up the cost of their living expenses. In fact, one Cambridge University graduate enthused that she could “even save” from her wages of £30 a day – given that she would be living nearby with her family rent-free.
By the time that her internship was over, Illgner had decided that she needed to take action. So with the help of the Good Law Project, a non-profit organization that uses the legal system to fight for a fairer society, she has now begun legal proceedings against Monocle. And although the focus of the case is her own unpaid income, she has also called upon the magazine to pay its future interns the minimum wage.
However, a spokesperson from Monocle seemed unimpressed by Illgner’s actions. “We remain proud of our internship scheme which has provided a launch-pad for so many young people to move into fulfilling and rewarding careers in publishing and journalism,” they told the Press Gazette. Will one woman’s determination be enough to change their mind? That remains to be seen.