Mobos shouldn’t get away with not paying staff

Kanya King is founder and chief executive of the Mobos, which is supported by EventScotland. Picture: PA
Kanya King is founder and chief executive of the Mobos, which is supported by EventScotland. Picture: PA
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WHEN the Mobo Awards return to Glasgow this month, some of the runners, ushers, and set up and breakdown crew will be young people working for free.

The event has faced harsh criticism for this. When the Mobos advertised for unpaid staff back in 2011, the union Bectu issued a sternly worded press release accusing it of exploitation. Result: the advert was withdrawn and the Mobos announced all its workers would be paid after all, claiming “the wording on the advert was not approved by management and an error was made”.

No such humility is evident this time. Instead of blaming an “error”, the Mobos blamed someone else – event partners Young Scot, on whose website the offer of “volunteer opportunities” appeared. The scheme, presented like a competition rather than a job advert, sets out to offer young Scots “valuable event and life skills experience in a high-profile, live entertainment environment”. Well, you can dress it up however you like; it’s still unpaid workers at a pop concert.

Is it unfair to single out the Mobos, given how many arts events are staffed partly or entirely by volunteers? I don’t think so. The Mobos is a big commercial industry event, with tickets costing up to £49. It has public support from EventScotland, the government and Scottish Enterprise. It should therefore be a shining example of good practice; if an event such as this can get away with not paying staff, what hope is there of making anyone else do it?

The Mobos row raises other issues too. The most topical is that, if David Cameron gets his way, anyone under 25 could soon have their benefits cut entirely. Last week’s despicable, heartless proposal is founded on a right-wing lie that Britain is filled with young people who essentially can’t be bothered working and are quite content to live off state support instead (Who are these people? I’ve never met one). But that’s a rant for a political column, not an arts column, so let’s focus on the fact that, in terms of the arts, it will have much the same effect as organisations such as the Mobos using unpaid labour – that is, to exclude young people who are not from wealthy families from pursuing jobs in the arts, however talented they may be. Young people from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to be in a position to do unpaid internships, or to turn down soul-destroying jobs or inappropriate apprenticeships to pursue the creative future they actually want.

It’s depressing how often the idea is trotted out that working in the arts is not, somehow, a “proper job” (and therefore, perhaps, a hobby for the middle classes) because many of these jobs are funded by public money (which, logically, would make being a nurse not a proper job either) or because being an actor or musician is regarded as somehow self-indulgent (but starting your own business to make money for yourself on your own terms is “entrepreneurial”).

It’s nonsense, hypocrisy and philistinism, all of it. And unfortunately we who work in the arts (and I don’t include happy hobbyists, who are a different thing entirely) help perpetuate it. We frequently work for free, for example, allowing ourselves to be exploited by talk of “experience” or “exposure”, or because we care enough to see a project through even when the money runs out.

It’s not all bleak. The SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations) and Creative Scotland are currently rolling out a new Creative Internship scheme, which funds around 58 employers in the arts world to take on paid interns aged 18-30. That’s a tiny number, and it’s only for 13 weeks, but it’s something.

The way the Mobos ad was presented, though, is utterly dispiriting. “Claim this reward,” the ad says, to “experience first-hand what it takes to make the event a huge success”. Here, writ large, is the myth that a job in the arts is not really a job at all but an indulgence, a lucky invitation to some glamorous party. A “reward”.

It’s a lie. Everyone I know in the arts works harder, for longer, and with more passion and enthusiasm, than most people in professions that pay substantially higher wages. And yet we indulge this lie, and demean ourselves and our profession every time we do it.

Twitter: @Aeatonlewis