The Ugly Truth About Unpaid Internships in Italy

By Marilù Ciabattoni

Before I start complaining about how bad the Italian job market is—and believe me, there’s a lot to say—a little introduction about myself. I studied English Literature and Creative Writing in Rome for three years in a private university—this fact alone sets my experience apart from many other people’s, so please keep that in mind. The summer before jumping into my last two semesters of undergrad, I started my first ever (unpaid) internship with an art gallery based both in Italy and abroad. At that time, what was essential to me was to get some work experience, and so I didn’t care about not getting paid.


In the following year, however, I would repeat the same excuse to myself—that experience was all that mattered at my young age—until it didn’t satisfy me anymore. Now, at 22, with four unpaid internships and countless other projects behind me, I am finally starting not only my first paid internship abroad but also my first paid freelance collaboration with yet another art gallery. Looking back at this past year, I realise a lot of things about being a young professional, and how us expected or neo-graduates are treated once we enter the job market in Italy. Even someone who comes from a privileged educational background like myself.

Society’s Pressure (To Start as Late as Possible)


Disclaimer before I start: in this article, I will oftentimes mix factual data with my own experience and perception of the reality I grew up in. Since I was so lucky to attend a “progressive” international university, I think that many Italians of my age haven't come to these realisations yet because they have not been exposed to the environment I operated in for three years.

While in other countries young professionals might be pressured into entering the 9-5 culture, in Italy it’s the exact opposite: you are not required to work as long as you’re a student—not even in the summer, when you have literally all the time in the world—and only those that want to make some extra money might start working in the weekend, but that’s it.


There’s no push to become independent. Many Italians do not start working until after the age of 25 and there’s a simple reason for that- the workload of Italian high schools and universities does not allow you to have satisfactory grades, work a part-time job and have a social life all together. It’s just impossible, or very, very hard.

When I started telling people in my hometown that I had just started working, they would look at me surprised and say, “so early?” I wouldn’t even waste time explaining that I was already 21, because I knew that, in their minds, I was still a little child that grew up in front of their eyes, and the thought of me changing and growing was unconceivable to them.

Before I continue, let me throw some facts and figures at you, shall I?


According to a 2019 report by the Ministry of Labor and Social Politics, the most popular types of contract young Italian professionals are offered when starting working are the following: 51% fixed-term contract, 14% apprenticeship, 12% part-time or on call, 9% open-ended contract, 4% freelance.


The website Statista shows that, after the economic crisis of 2008, unemployment rate in Italy peaked in 2014 at 12.7%, and it has since then been declining as the years went by, so much so that it was at 9.3% in 2020. That’s why most Italians still feel the need to leave the country and seek employment abroad, mostly in the European Union, where they have the right to work without sponsorship. But many also went as far as leaving the Old Continent to emigrate to America. Argentina, in fact, had the largest population of Italian immigrants as of 2019, followed by Germany and Switzerland. As of 2020, over five million Italians lived abroad, and most of them are university degree holder, according to Simona Varrella (Statista).

A Generation of Isolated Workers

Although many employees were happy to work remotely—either full-time or part-time—the fact that I started my first-ever internship from home somehow devalued what was a big day in my life. No matter how depressing it was, however, we still managed to make it work: scattered all around Europe, we did our best to bring two-slash-three exhibitions to life in both galleries.

During my following internships, coinciding with a semi-lockdown, I did feel very isolated, like I was not part of anything. At that time, I was interning at the British School at Rome, but what’s the point of flexing that if you’re not at the school itself? My manager said that they usually have their interns meet their scholarship-winning artists and help them by going around the city looking for materials for their artworks; that they usually organise a big talk with a guest speaker and an end-of-trimester exhibition displaying what their artists had been working on for the past months.

Unfortunately, none of these projects actually came to life, and, if on one hand it gave me more time to focus on the other three hundred things I had to do—my schoolwork, my assistantship, my piano lessons, and so on—on the other I felt like I was not really doing anything, that I was not gaining any relevant skills but only adding another well-presented reference to my resume.

I understand why people who started working years ago are now enjoying their flexible job schedule allowing them to work part time in person and part time from home, but for those young professionals that started their careers in 2020, everything felt rather purposeless. I would have sacrificed time, energy and sleep to have the chance to work face-to-face with my manager, as I was very starved for human interaction.

Exploitation


It took me one year to realise how many Italian employers can exploit their unpaid interns, perhaps by making them perform boring tasks that do not carry that much value for the company. To be selected for my first internship, I had to edit the descriptions of forty-one artists and their style that were going to be featured in the upcoming group exhibition of the gallery. It literally took me a week to get the work done.

Something similar happened after I got the internship- the gallery owner texted me during one of my days off to ask me to translate twelve pages of instructions that gallery managers had to follow every single day. She said that it was an urgent task and asked whether I could get it ready by that same night. I don’t know why, but I said I could. When I realised it would take me at least another full day, the owner said no problem. 24 hours later, I sent her the ultimate text. The morning after, I asked her whether it was okay, to which she responded, “I haven’t read it yet.” I was extremely disappointed, if not pissed: if it’s not that urgent, why did you bother me on my day off to translate 12 fucking pages of instructions?


I think the reason why I was doing all that was because of a promise she had made: that she would take me as an intern again the following summer, this time at the gallery’s premises abroad. (Spoiler alert: she didn’t.) That was my first experience, and I think it’s normal that I believed all the silly little lies she made.


Something similar happened while working for my second art gallery, for which I worked for three months before asking the owner about whether he was intentioned to hire me—even part-time—or not. When I did, he literally made up a bunch of excuses about the tasks I carried out: that many of my posts were “careless and lazy” and some of them contained “wrong information,” when, in reality, I checked and double-checked every post before posting it or scheduling it. I realised that arguing against the owner would be useless, and I eventually accepted to not be a part of the gallery anymore.

The truth is, many companies in Italy could pay, but they’d rather exploit one intern after the other instead of owing them what they’re worth. From an outsider’s perspective, it might sound like madness, but this is considered normal by people who have never experienced a different treatment. Hence, that’s why so many Italians are leaving the country, never to come back if not to visit their family and friends. Soon, I’ll be one of them. And who knows, depending on when you might be reading this article, perhaps I already am.