The Informal Media Economy – what’s to do about that?

I’m feeling pretentiously self-deprecatory at the moment, particularly with all this job talk and yes, the inevitable discourse of a media career, but allow me to to alleviate this post from its seriousness with an overview:

Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas has a basket aplenty of discussions rolled into one focus: “informal modes of media work”. To sum quite liberally, informal means flexibility but insecurity, creative freedom but little to no pay, and enjoyable, career-minded work but unpaid overtime and mostly unregulated overwork. Formal usually means full-time, well-paid, regulated but less flexibility, to some extent.

This subject is quite intriguing in that most of my cohorts probably share the same anxiety I have towards this fissure between the two polars. As a fully-driven, career-minded graduating media student, aiming high, there is an equivocal appeal to the positive characteristics of informality. Freedom, autonomy, entrepreneurial prospects. It’s worth the candour that that kind of life sounds pretty sweet. However, having concluded internships and volunteering projects myself and hearing others’ stories in regards to the exploitative nature of the informal employment sphere, it’s not difficult to be apprehensive, but also unsurprisingly roused to action.

Problematic aspects of informal work in the creative industries:

  • Underemployment
  • Unhealthy working conditions
  • Unpaid overtime
  • Self-exploitation
  • Discrimination
  • Lack of unionisation and minority representation

And one informant writer’s anecdote of an “intoxicating” and “rapturous” feeling of exploitation since she was working late in the city of dreams New York City as something akin to jealousy, eventually, through time, you realise the necessity of things like holidaying back to your parents through frequent flyer points, which you can only earn if you buy a new toothbrush, and of which can only be bought via money and well, time. You can’t exactly run to your nearest grocers at 2am in the morning after your fifth consecutive 15-hour shift now could you?

So where am I getting with this exactly? Addressing the travesty of the under-regulation of creative/media jobs in industrialised countries without sounding like a schmuck to the poor outsourced freelancers from less-fortunate backgrounds and economic surrounds who benefit from such informal employment conditions.

Regulation and also a significant support in the creative and media industries in industrialised countries is important in addressing Cunningham’s argument where he states that “very significant proportion of creative workers, including designers and multimedia artists, are located outside the creative industries, in sectors ranging from automotive to financial services”. Regulation means autonomy and freedom does not equal “unpaid” time, because, let’s face it people, though we enjoy our “jobs” and would be willing to “contribute” and “gain experience”, we also need a good night out watching Captain America in his spandex. And we can’t look cool that way when we’re not given the financial support also.

There needs to be a re-evaluation of what companies – big, small, start-ups – believe are “opportunities” and “gaining experiences” through the exploitation of creative talents for the benefit of their business reach. I’ve heard a quite a number of stories from people who has worked with huge companies that did not pay their interns and their ticket out of it was the experience of working for such a big name/big brand. Some friends who have graduated had taken care to point out to me to do internships but to not be used as a capital. Hence, my apprehension also.

Of course, personally speaking, I’ve interned with a number of great companies for no salary and indeed I benefited through experience and practical knowledge, networking and professionalism. But these organisations are self-funded and not-for-profit. It was a beneficial exchange between me and them. So how about the other way around?

Lobato and Thomas states a proposed solution to this creative labour problem: a “call for formalisation of workplace and recruitment practices, along with better and more extensive government regulation”. This should be emphasised because the creative industries is an industry itself also, similar to finances, medical, and corporate communications.

This, of course, is an open and very debated topic but it’s surely an issue that should be addressed for the greater good of future creatives.