Blame the Farmer, not the Internsheep

By Kate Martin


In an extended version of her presentation given at WORKAROUND in October, Katja Petrova’s DIY Masterclass at SUPERMARKT last week raised many important issues and questions regarding the state of interning today both internationally and locally. Rather than being anti-internship, Katja’s research highlighted the widespread rise of the unfair or exploitative internship, and her advice presented solutions for those grappling with the increasing reality of being stuck in the internship cycle of our generation praktikum.

Central to the theme of Katja’s presentation, and something that I as both a prior intern and employer of volunteers wholeheartedly agree with, is the principle that any internship programme, regardless of whether it is paid or not, should always be about what the intern can learn from the organisation, not about what free or cheap labour can be procured. Previously, the internship was something conducted during tertiary education during the semester break of your bachelor or masters studies, or sometimes even incorporated into your studies, often only made possible by student support or parental financial support. Now however, especially in Berlin where unemployment is at 12.4%[1] and entry level positions becoming fewer and fewer, more young graduates are turning to internships to get their foot in the employment door. This is hard enough even with parental or second-job support – I often wonder about those who have neither.

We’ve all heard stories about how large scale corporations have begun firing full-time permanent employees only to replace them with temporary freelance staff and even interns, and now we are starting to see the rising number of non-profits and charities continuing this trend. This is problematic for the job market for three reasons. Firstly, trends such as these reinforce the attitude that it is ok to overlook the value of knowledge accumulated over time by a committed long-term worker in the face of making a bigger profit. Secondly, it places an incredible amount of responsibility on the individual to obtain and excel in a variety of skills related to self-management in order to gain and stay in employment, rather than learning skills related to the job they’re meant to be doing. Often underpaid, precariously working freelancers must now become experts not only in their trade, craft or specialised field, but also in the fields of accounting and legal matters in order to organise their specific pensions, tax payments and health insurance – all things not automatically taken care of as when one is on the payroll. And thirdly, some argue that by fostering a situation where low and unpaid internships become the only way to enter into the workforce, in the long run, that workforce will be represented by and large only by a heterogeneous group of privileged middle to upper-class, excluding the voices of minorities everywhere.

What’s even more concerning is that in the race to find cheap and disposable employees, the intern seems to have become the new freelancer. At the Masterclass, one participant described her experiences of being asked by a Berlin organisation to register as self-employed (selbstständig) so they could avoid writing a contract. Oh, and once she did figure out how to register as self-employed and how to charge for her labour, her invoices were never paid. What’s most disturbing though, in many cases not only are interns ineligible for health insurance and pension schemes due to the fact that they are not legally considered employees, but often they may not even have basic workplace health and safety rights.

One of the main mantras Katja raised was that the intern should never replace an employee. When I heard this I immediately thought of my own experiences as both a volunteer and an intern working within the non-profit contemporary arts sector, and I wondered: what if the employees themselves are not earning decent (or any) wages themselves? Or if the position of employee that the intern is supposedly replacing never even existed in the first place? For example, I’m sure we’ve all worked in galleries or museums where it was never even an option to hire paid staff due to the organisation’s insecure funding structure, or busted a gut grinding it out for a start-up relying on mass intern labour to rapidly develop their new company.

So why aren’t companies offering real jobs to young people anymore? This seems to stem from a perception that the young (despite having qualifications such as bachelors, masters or PhD’s in some cases) are lazy, lack initiative and thus in a climate where financial belts are tightened across multiple sectors, are deemed as simply not worth the risk. Others argue that recent graduates simply lack the soft skills required to work in many work environments. But has it not occurred to these organisations that there are benefits in investing in young staff members, nurturing them and in the long term benefiting from their knowledge rather than losing it every time one intern is shed and another recruited? Surely this repeated hiring and firing of un- or low paid interns is actually losing them money on return on investment? And don’t they realise how damaging this process is to their reputation? …That is if the intern isn’t too paralysed with fear of ruining any future employment prospects to come forward and complain.

However, as Katja illustrated, interns around the world are challenging the status quo in a number of different ways. Through suing their previous employers with legal suits claiming back their owed wages on the grounds that they were actually performing the function of a paid employee, and though joining internship rights groups naming and shaming unfair and exploitative internship providers and empowering others to do the same. Now, this is all incredibly inspiring and I for one am glad to help. But as I listened to these cases of interns turned activists, I couldn’t help but wonder: what about employer responsibility? Shouldn’t we also be asking those who are creating these precarious working conditions in the first place to account for their actions?

Despite the DIY Masterclass having highlighted the negative situation facing those entering the workforce the workshop ended on a positive note with Nicolas’ presentation about his new company InternsGoPro, which aims to make the process of offering and delivering internship programmes more transparent and accountable, and a discussion about what we as participants could do to help continue these kinds of awareness raising campaigns. There is further hope with the recent announcement by the CDU and SPD to support new guidelines for paid internships here in Germany, however I believe we don’t just need internship awareness campaigns and the training of young people in how to avoid exploitative working situations. We also need better training and education of employers in the value in employing young people as interns and as employees. While my days of interning are long gone, I look forward to the developments towards creating better working conditions for the next generation of workers.

This blogpost originally appear on Kate Martin’s Contemporary Art Exchange website.

[1] In January 2013, a total of 219 071 persons in Berlin were registered unemployed, which is equivalent to a rate of 12.4%, the national unemployment rate being 7.4%. This represents a year-on-year decrease of 9 117, or 0.8%. The capital’s unemployment rate is thus the third-highest in Germany. Source.

Image: Google Images Creative Commons License

Bildet Banden!


Rückblick auf die Berliner Gazette-Jahreskonferenz „Complicity“ im SUPERMARKT von Katharina Meyer.

Wir waren Komplizen: Letztes Wochenende fand im SUPERMARKT die Jahreskonferenz der Berliner Gazette statt, über drei Tage und mit täglich ca. 100 Teilnehmern mit unterschiedlichsten Hintergründen: Aktivisten, Coder, Künstler, Wissenschaftler, Journalisten. Und wir hatten das Glück, aktiv mit dabei sein zu können.

Komplexe Umbruchprozesse im Zeichen der Digitalisierung und Globalisierung verursachen aktuell ein Vakuum, in dem Liaisionen möglich werden, die vorher undenkbar waren. Sie müssen aber denkbar sein, denn geballtes Wissen ist notwendig, um offenen Zugang zu Quellen, Information und Wissen zu gewährleisten. Sei es en miniature in Alltagserfahrungen oder im Verlauf grenzüberschreitender Großprojekte (Konferenz-Beispiel: Offshore-Leaks, ein Enthüllungs-Großprojekt von Programmierern und Journalisten unter dem Dach der ICIJ:

Fast jeder hat schon einmal die Erfahrung gemacht, dass beim Puzzlen Teile, die nicht füreinander gemacht sind, verkanten. Es kann aber zum Glück auch ganz anders kommen, wie dieser schöne Tumblr zeigt, selbst wenn man manchmal etwas mehr Kraft braucht zum Einpassen: Es geht nicht mehr um vorgestanzte Paare, sondern um ganz neue Kombinationen. So auch in der realen Welt, fern aller Gamification:

Heterogene (Berufs-)Gruppen werden in Phasen des Übergangs aufeinandergeworfen, bilden eine freiwillige oder unfreiwillige Komplizenschaft und lernen in einem harten Training „on the Job“, irgendwie miteinander klarzukommen. Dabei wurde bisher oft versäumt, die Strategien und Learnings festzuhalten, die sich beim Erlernen einer gemeinsamen Choreografie bewähren. Das wurde auf der Konferenz geändert:

Unter Laborbedingungen (teils sogar im Untergeschoss des SUPERMARKT) haben in insgesamt drei Versuchsanordnungen (Kapitalisten & Piraten, Journalisten & Hacker und Profis & Amateure, näheres zu der Zusammensetzung und Themenfeldern auf der Website der Berliner Gazette: versucht, herauszufinden, wie Zusammenarbeit ganz praktisch aussehen kann, wenn der Emulgator fehlt und man ohne triftigen Anlass nicht am selben Tisch landen würde.

Was können die unterschiedlichen Gruppen voneinander lernen, gibt es eine gemeinsame Sprache, welche unerwarteten Lösungen können dabei entstehen? Inwiefern ist Komplizenschaft (in der Diktion der Keynote-Sprecherin Prof. Gesa Ziemer „entsteht diese, wenn mehrere Personen zu einer gemeinsamen Entscheidung gelangen, einen Plan entwerfen und diesen dann auch umsetzen“, jedoch eher als ephemerer Bindung, als vorübergehende Gefährten) ein Modell für die gesamte Gesellschaft und ihre Erneuerung?

Unkonventionelle Teams und Kollektive können, vorausgesetzt sie reflektieren und verschreiben sich den Prinzipien einer generalüberholten Konnektivität, ebenso unkonventionelle Tools und Taktiken entwickeln, die dazu beitragen, drängende Herausforderungen anzugehen. Desto wilder das Denken und desto weiter die Ausgangspunkte der mitdenkenden Akteure auseinanderliegen, desto faszinierender können die Ergebnisse sein.

Als ein Beispiel (da gut abbildbar) seien hier die Workshopgruppen der Hacker & Journalisten genannt. Hier lief die Debatte mehr auf praktische Fragen hinaus, für die die anwesenden Hacker umstandlos Anwendungen lieferten. Nach zwei Workshop-Tagen standen die ersten Applikations-Prototypen, die nun hoffentlich weiterentwickelt werden: Wie kann eine Newsübersicht der alternativen Medien aussehen, was können Journalisten umgekehrt mit den Hacker News anfangen? Wie können Journalisten und Hacker gemeinsam dafür Sorge tragen, dass die Forderung nach einem Asyl für Edward Snowden nicht von der Politik abgebürstet wird?

Eine dokumenatrische Übersicht der drei Complicity-Konferenztage gibt es hier (samt Video-Streams des Abschluss-Symposiums):

Bilder (auch von den großartigen Graphic Recordings, die Gabi Schlipf gemeinsam mit Teilnehmern unserer im Vorfeld abgehaltenen DIY-Masterclass anfertigte) finden sich hier:


Public Talks:

Hinterm Tellerrand liegt der Horizont, und der ist weit. Als Lehre aus der Konferenz kann ich nur empfehlen, sich in Kneipen öfter neben die Leute zu setzen, die einen eigentlich im gesamten Raum am meisten nerven, es könnte sein, dass der Abend fantastisch wird. Und vielleicht macht man ja mal was zusammen.

Danke an das gesamte Team der Berliner Gazette, an alle Sprecher, Graphic Recorder und Teilnehmer!

Internship Culture in Berlin

By Katja Avant-Hard [Berlin Internship Justice]


When startups are trying to reach the moon whilst paying their interns €300 per month, it is clear - their business model is wrong. They are fooling you by saying “you will have a great chance to learn how to [….], and you’ll get individual tasks and responsibilities where you can show your creativity and strategic thinking”. In reality this actually means: “You will work 40+ hours a week, replacing an employee who otherwise would have been paid at least €2000 per month”. Mum does not pay my rent, dad does not cover my food expenses. And I need a health insurance, which I cannot pay for when I only make €300 per month.

Once I left a negative comment on a company’s Facebook page under an unpaid internship offer, to which they said: “If we could pay, we would; we all work for this project with a great passion and hope to find interns who will share this vision with us”. And when I said: “Can’t pay, don’t hire. You don’t work for free yourself, why should anyone else?”, they deleted the post entirely. After a similar comment on Praktikum Berlin not only they deleted my comment, but also blocked me from commenting or liking their posts.

If they don’t want to hear me on Facebook, then they will have to hear me speaking out loud on the 13th of November at Supermarkt where I will be giving a DIY Masterclass presentation on this very important topic. Nicholas Wenzel from InternsGoPro will join us at the event for an open discussion.

This free workshop will give a deep insight into the different aspects of internship culture across the world. We will discuss what is a useful internship and what is illegal. I will talk about the biggest internship scandals in 2013 wrapping it up with the dubious intern policies of Berlin Startups. A great collection of videos, comics, stats and info-graphics will be provided for visitors to understand the problem, and also to see possible solutions.

Please share the Facebook event with anyone who might be interested:  DIY MASTERCLASS: Know Your Rights! Internship Culture in Berlin.

↓ The most creative way how to leave the company which destroys your life.

On this same topic a new promising German article, which I recommend to read: The Local: If the Internship is Really bad, Walk away.

Masterclass Programme
14:00 Presentation from Katja Petrova on the problem with unfair internships, intern laws across the world, material and psychological aspects of unfair internships, case studies with source material from a range of articles, video and activist resources, problematic startups business models in Germany, and last but not least, solutions!
15:00 Open discussion where participants are welcome to share ideas, fears and experiences
15:30 Coffee break
16:00 Nicholas Wenzel from InternsGoPro, a European community fighting for intern rights, presents his activities, ideas and action plans, including building a team of activists and a possible demonstration in Berlin in March 2014
17:30 Hosts will be available for private talks and consultations

Cost: The Masterclass is free, but a donation box will be present should you wish to make a contribution to the host organisations.
Language: The language of presentation will be English.
Registration: Please register your attendance by sending an email to with the subject heading “Intern Rights”. Everyone is invited to attend and participate in this Masterclass, especially activists and those who have come across this problem and/or experienced Berlin’s internship culture first-hand.

I thank Supermarkt for all their help and support!

Image rights: by George Gastin, Design: Katja Avant-Hard

A (self) critique on the WORKAROUND Conference

By WORKAROUND co-curator Kate Martin [Contemporary Art Exchange].


There is definitely something changing about the way people think and talk about work today. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, a new awareness of how unbalanced, unfair and unjust the labour market really is has been fuelled by world events such as the Occupy movement and an increase in access to information through the advances of new technology. It’s no surprise to me then, that in today’s individualistic society, people are turning towards the alternative, towards new modes of working, inspired by others around them both near and far who are self-organising and self-managing, to claw back power from those who hold the purse strings and the power to employ.

The motivation to curate the WORKAROUND Conference (18-20 October 2013) stemmed not only from these above global changes, but also from my own personal experiences as a generation X-er faced with the new reality of a rapidly changing work environment that our parents never experienced. As a freelance curator and arts educator, the precarious nature of work has always been a well-known aspect of working in the arts, from dealing with the yawning gap between what you get taught at college or university and the reality of working in the arts, to unstable incomes and the expectation that if you work in the arts you should be satisfied with the exchange of “exposure”, and not cash, for your time and labour. Now, I must admit that I have been relatively lucky to have benefited from what I consider a relatively modern Australian arts education system in the early-mid 2000’s – what a shock it was when I landed in the UK in 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis to hear that most of my peers were on their 5th or 6th unpaid gallery internship and had never been taught anything about the arts sector their university had recently spat them out into. However, these issues are nothing new and I too, despite having an education that was quite industry focused, have had a career filled with my fair share of the usual suspects well known to any arts practitioner – lots of volunteering, a few unpaid internships and a lot of part time admin and bar work.

Fast forward to Berlin 2013, just under a year after my arrival on the back of a pretty successful 4 years in Edinburgh (and by successful, I mean finally being able to support myself solely from my curatorial/arts education practice) and I find myself having the same conversations over and over again about shitty work conditions and the subsequent lack of insurance, healthcare and other perks that a stable wage or employer brings. This was somewhat unsurprising considering Berlin’s reputation as a haven for low-income-earning (usually migrant) creatives (myself included) due to its relatively affordable (for now) rents. However what became apparent was that it seemed that these issues were not just restricted to those working in the arts. My suspicions were confirmed when I attended the European Forum for Independent Professionals event held at Supermarkt in May 2013. The EFIP’s research demonstrated that Independent working had increased by 82% from 2000-2011 with the number of independent professionals reaching 8.6million in 2011. The establishment of the EFIP sought to address exactly this issue as governments around the EU failed (and still continue) to meet the needs of this new breed of worker either choosing or being forced into a variety of freelance, self-employed or independent work.

A few months later, after discussing these alarming employment trends with Supermarkt co-Founder and Manager Ela Kagel, we decided to organise a 3-day conference entitled WORKAROUND that would flesh out these issues further and provide a physical and mental space for people to find positive and active solutions to our rapidly changing world of work. What was really important for us was to look at the bigger picture and open up the dialogue to include a range of job sectors and create a situation allowing participants themselves to almost create their own content, directed by their own sets of questions, ideas and solutions to existing problems surrounding work, self-employment and self-organisation. What were the ways in which people were working around the traditional paradigms of a capitalist labour market? How were individuals self-organising their time, skills and labour in alternative methods? And how could these new or revived models address some of the challenges of working in an unsupported environment?

The event was ambitious – a limited time frame, a limited budget and a new working relationship between a freelancer (me) and an organisation (Supermarkt) – and something we really wanted to work. Could we reach out beyond the usual Supermarkt audience? Could we create content that would be of benefit to both the local Brunnenviertel as well as the international community? Would our conference format encourage engagement and interest from the participants? And even if we did manage to bring in participants from a variety of different sectors, would they talk and share with one another?

Kicking off the 3-day conference with the Freitagsfruhstuck, we invited speakers that could demonstrate the diversity of work within Supermarkt’s immediate environment of the Brunnenviertel, that there is not one single type of freelancer, and that despite the stereotype of the Brunnenviertel as a cultural dead spot, freelancers here are working around the existing system to create opportunities for themselves and in turn, for others within the community. The morning began with an introductory workshop to freelancing by SOMEWHERE’s Nina Bulsche followed by an empowered presentation by Zehra Özedmir founder & CEO of Destiny Diversity Academy, an informative talk by Heike Fahrnländer from JobKiosk Berlin-Wedding, and an introduction to both mine and Ela’s work for Contemporary Art Exchange and Supermarkt respectively. The morning ended with the creation of an email list so participants could form a regular Stammtisch for local freelancers, entrepreneaurs and self-employed workers – an idea floated by planned speaker Beate Chudowa, Board and active member of Brunnenviertel e.V., who had to cancel due to illness.

For the Saturday we took a more formal approach. Our key-note speakers Social Business Expert Geof Cox and Heike Birkhölzer, CEO of Technologie-Netzwerk Berlin e.V., gave insight into the rise of local and international social movements and the revival of unions, cooperatives and social business models. A series of four short presentations provided examples of alternative working practices, considerations and approaches within the areas of finance, housing, education and the arts. Christophe Guené introduced the Kreditunion as best practice of financial self-empowerment; Dr. Michael LaFond director of id:22 The Institute for Creative Sustainability presented sustainable models of housing and organization; artist and Freelance and Interns’ Rights activist Katja Petrova presented her research and recommendations for problematic internships; and scientist and member of artist collective iCollective Jan Fischer gave his insight into collaboration, community working and the collective’s urban intervention projects.

In the following break out discussion groups led by the speakers, it quickly became apparent that synergies were starting to form between complete strangers, with speakers themselves challenged and presented with new ideas and a range of ethical, philosophical and practical questions.

Christoph’s group discussed today’s lack of access to banking and Kreditunion’s underlying conceptual framework to deal with this through emphasising the importance of social capital and the exchange of self-responsibility in return for professional consultancy. In Katja’s group, personal internship experiences were shared and a consensus reached that more young people need to reach out for support not just to one another, but also to those who can change the situation, by attending conferences on education reform, joining the intern aware campaign, lobbying government and leaders in individual sectors. Jan’s group discussed how collaboration can work between artists, designers, architects and members of the local community; the need to make things real beyond economic structures; and the importance of working from the ground up on community projects. Michael’s group raised the issues inherent in self-organised housing projects such as accountability to the people you live with, good communication, and how being more self-aware of our own individual contributions to the gentrification process.

The last and final day of WORKAROUND was held at the Pfefferberg Cultural Centre and hosted by the Aedes Network Campus Berlin, to give participants (and us!) a change in the physical environment and thus pace of the event. The afternoon featured a more relaxed, informal round table community meeting where invited ImpulsgeberInnen (impulse givers) prompted discussion around the self-management of time, skills and labour. It was truly great to see that so many participants from the first two days of WORKAROUND had returned again (especially on a Sunday afternoon!) to continue unfinished conversations and flesh out newly formed ideas. Four different conversation groups formed around our selected speakers with the participants once again instigating much of the discussion based on their own real life challenges.

Despite it being at times quite an intense conference dealing with a relatively heavy and often political theme, the atmosphere even on the last day was energetic and positive as people shared ideas and potential solutions for the oft seen problems such as the cycle of non- and low-paid labour and the expectancy of freelancers to do it all. The conference came to a close with yet another email swap to continue conversations exploring the idea of creating a model for sustainable working that could benefit various freelance workers from different disciplines.

While Ela and I realise that one conference won’t fix the larger international issues effecting and shaping the world of work today, we feel confident that at the very least WORKAROUND was able to provide a platform, or a catalyst to start a dialogue about how the rigid structures and obstacles in place preventing sustainable, healthy and innovative work practices can be challenged across all sectors. From my own perspective as an arts practitioner, I think it is high time more arts practitioners came together with individuals from other sectors and discussed work issues more openly. What are we so afraid of? That if we share our knowledge, skills, and dare I suggest, collaborate, that it will somehow deplete our autonomy as freelance creatives? Or that being more business minded will somehow compromise our creative abilities? Are we really too proud to share with one another and turn our competitors into colleagues? I don’t know about you, but in reference to Christoph Guené’s presentation, I know I’d much rather bargain together than beg alone.

The WORKAROUND Conference took place from 18-20 October 2013 at Pfefferberg Cultural Centre (hosted by the Aedes Network Campus Berlin) and SUPERMARKT, Berlin. The three-day event was curated by Ela Kagel and Kate Martin.