I GRADUATED WITH an Arts degree in Law and Philosophy in 2007. At the time I was naïve enough to believe that three years in college were enough, and that I would walk into a job which encouraged me to actually use what I had learned. Luckily, a couple of my lecturers and fellow students were honest enough to tell me that I’d need some sort of ‘top-up’ qualification if I wanted any chance of a decent job. I have graduated twice more since then; once with an LLB (postgraduate law degree) and finally in 2011 with a Masters in International Human Rights Law. In that time I have had one job that could be described as legally-based and it was unpaid.
Over the last five summers I have sent CVs to solicitors’ offices all over the country. Although they all said they’d keep my CV on file, I have not had one single offer of work. Making the decision to focus on Human Rights Law has probably diminished my job opportunities. I probably can get relevant experience in Ireland but it will almost certainly be unpaid.
Gaining credible experience
I started to mention my years of being an activist on social and economic justice issues in my cover letters and, if anything, I was turned down quicker in Ireland… but one day last December something changed. I was offered an unpaid internship in London with a human rights organisation/advocacy group. Their focus was on victims of the ‘War on Terror’, it was finally something specific enough for me to actually gain credible experience.
I had been working in a call-centre for six months and had only just lost my job because I dared to question the finance manager’s description of the winter Budget as “not that bad”, despite my performance at the job being well above average. I came out of that job with enough saved to cover rent for a few months in a different country. It was unpaid, but six months in London was possibly going to be the most worthwhile line on my CV since I started working in fast-food and retail to cover the extortionate costs of postgraduate study in Ireland.
I was happy but haemorrhaging money
Six months on (more like five-and-a-half months, my money ran out) and I am happy with my decision. The internship in London saw me operating in a role where I had to respond to current events; the Boston bombing, the incident in Woolwich, war in Syria and continuous drone strikes in Pakistan all occurring in that short period of time.
The reality of the oppression that the British Muslim population is facing was not lost on me, I was an Irishman in London of mixed Irish/Pakistani heritage and I had been aware of how “suspect communities” had been created through the experiences of generations of both sides of my family.
Surely criticising counter-terror legislation and initiating projects about discriminatory stop-and-search laws will be of some value to a potential solicitor’s office/human rights organisation back in Ireland? Having been back a month, I’ll just have to wait and see.
It seems I had underestimated the cost of living in London. Realising I would be haemorrhaging money every day on travel if I was to live far away from my workplace, I took a place within walking distance of the office. Whitechapel is in the south east of London, that didn’t stop the rent being twice that of an above average place in my hometown of Galway.
I put aside a significant proportion of my savings to cover six months of rent and realised quite quickly that what was left over would have to be managed on a daily basis if I wanted to eat in a healthy manner. In the five or so months I was in London I lost over two stone in weight and learnt how to keep myself fed on £20 a week. When I returned to Ireland I had to face the reality of lack of money but with the added problem of no work at all – paid or unpaid.
Moving abroad for work or experience has become normalised
Since when did it become normal for work to go unpaid? Those of us who seek jobs in areas not considered profitable by Government departments and large multi-nationals have to accept the notion that work experience you receive will, more than likely, be without remuneration and without the prospect of this experience leading to a paid position.
The idea that people who have invested time in education or work from an early age have to now move abroad to earn a living has become normalised. We are taught to adjust our standards of living while the price of the cost of living stays at a level which forces many to consider emigration. Any ethical objections one has to how our education has been commercialised or how our job opportunities have to be tailored to fit the needs of those who dodge their taxes, are either ignored or described as “work-shy”.
I really didn’t think I’d be in this situation five years ago when I embarked on this path. Unfortunately there are many more young people with a similar story to mine. Their life prospects dramatically altered for the worst, regardless of whether they were in university or not.
A whole generation forced to pay for the mistakes of a reckless elite, despite being too young to economically participate during the years of the Celtic Tiger.
Joseph Loughnane BA, LLB, LLM is a graduate involved with the Irish Student Left Online