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Interns and freelancers have little recourse — legally and otherwise — when exploited by employers.
Interns and freelancers have little recourse — legally and otherwise — when exploited by employers.

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Ending exploitation of creative interns and freelancers — can it be done?

Ending exploitation of creative interns and freelancers — can it be done?

Companies in the media, communications and creative fields have no shortage of interns to choose from, with many aspiring journalists, marketers and artists eager to gain some work experience that is likely to boost their résumés.

But how many of these interns actually gain valuable work experience instead of being exploited for their ideas — in addition to being mistreated in a variety of other ways?

In a recent article published by The Ticker, Arts and Style Editor Danielle Epel wrote: “Oftentimes, an intern will be exploited for their work in exchange for college credit. However, in recent years, the exploitation starts before an intern can even gain the experience.

“Various companies such as Apple Inc., Spotify, Balenciaga, and Converse were accused of implementing ideas from interns and internship applicants without any credit, job offers or even internship proposals.”

PitchMark recently covered one such instance of alleged exploitation, whereby US-based designer Cecilia Monge took to TikTok in May this year to call out Converse for reportedly stealing designs from a portfolio she had submitted to the brand as part of her internship application in 2019.

The designs, which were nearly identical to hers, appeared on a line of National Parks-inspired sneakers the brand had launched. Converse, however, refuted all allegations. It also did not help Monge’s case that in the US, copyright rarely protects fashion design ideas.

Exploitation knows no borders

The exploitation of interns is not exclusive to any one country or industry, of course. Closer to home, we spoke to two former interns at a Singapore-based PR and communications agency, both of whom requested anonymity for themselves and the company in question.

Ning (not her real name) started her three-month creative internship at the agency in November 2020. While the employer’s tasks were “relatively reasonable at first” and fell within Ning’s job scope of copy-editing and fact-checking, she soon realised they tended to be sporadic and that the employer had a habit of informing her of these tasks at the last minute — typically late at night or even on weekends.

She added that the employer often sent multiple text messages under the guise of being concerned and “checking up” on her, but she soon discovered what would become her main issue with the employer — pay.

Despite receiving only S$400 a month, Ning would consistently be paid late, with her first salary arriving at least two weeks late. In fact, her second month’s salary was so delayed that while the employer paid her for her third and final month at the agency, she had apparently “forgotten” about the second paycheque.

“As an unassuming and slightly naïve student, I didn’t mention anything at first,” Ning said, “But when I finally brought this up with her, her ‘nice’ side immediately disappeared and her tone became nasty. She even made condescending and unempathetic comments like ‘when I was your age, work experience was all I wanted’.”

According to Ning, the employer also tried to pull the wool over her eyes by claiming that her salary had been “paid in advance”. “Since I was tired of being gaslit and I knew my facts were accurate, I sent her an email with a proper breakdown of my salary’s due dates for the three months I worked for her.”

It was then that the employer became defensive and began criticising the quality of Ning’s work, saying it “wasn’t delivered to journalistic standard”. She implied this was just cause for her delayed salaries, and that Ning should “appreciate” that she even received her pay at all.

Looking back, Ning said, “Frankly, I would have loved to hear feedback on how I could improve on my ‘journalistic standard’ when I first submitted my articles, as this was what I signed up for — learning experience.

“But I didn’t hear anything of the sort, and I don’t appreciate how she suddenly came up with reasons to delay my pay. This was by no means a voluntary position, and had I been in a less stable financial situation, I believe this would have set me back even more.”

Delegating dirty deeds

Felicia (not her real name), another former intern who was in charge of the agency’s social media accounts for nine months, told PitchMark how the employer attempted to rope her into stealing ideas from freelance designers she never intended to hire.

After the agency’s full-time designer resigned, the employer claimed to be looking for a freelancer to fill the gap before hiring another full-timer. Felicia said, “She claimed she had a database of over 500 freelancers to reach out to, then sent me a contact and asked me to work with that person and get him and her to ‘ideate the (social media) posts’.

“She always failed to share further details, and sent me emails and messages with no context or background information.

“For instance, I had no idea what she and the freelancer had agreed on prior to my contact with him, and was given no instruction regarding the number of posts required or the preferred turnaround time.

“I was also in the dark about basic information, like what the freelancers on her supposed database could or couldn’t do, or what deadlines she had in mind.”

It’s also worth noting that Felicia had very little previous experience handling freelancers or design work, yet was given absolutely no guidance in this regard.

“After I had contacted the freelancer, she suddenly told me he was ‘not very keen’. But strangely, she also asked me to keep talking to him to find out what ideas he had for social media, and even to request mock-ups and preliminary design work from him.”

Feeling out of her depth, Felicia confided in her colleagues. One of them, a more experienced media professional, recognized what the employer was trying to do: appropriate ideas and concepts without permission or payment.

Fortunately for Felicia, she gained the support of her co-workers, who managed to prevent this attempted case of idea theft from happening.

A tricky undertaking

Needless to say, not all freelancers or interns are lucky enough to avoid exploitation or idea theft. Robinson LLC Director Cyril Chua told PitchMark that idea theft involving freelancers is “such a common, age-old problem”.

“If you can show you are the originator of the idea, and an NDA was signed when you discussed it with the company, you’d have a pretty good case against the company for breach of confidentiality, or of the NDA,” Chua said.

Things get trickier, however, when the both ideas are not identical but only “somewhat similar”. Chua said, “Then the company may claim the idea was not from you but from another freelancer who had a similar idea that fit what they really wanted.”

It seems a freelance creative’s only recourse at the moment is to prepare an NDA prior to pitching, and ensure they have evidence their ideas are indeed their own. But as long as potential clients in general remain reluctant to sign NDAs, freelancers remain at a disadvantage in the creative and media industries.

PitchMark helps innovators protect their ideas before they are pitched. To find more about our services and how we can keep your ideas safe from theft, visit and register for free as a PitchMark member today.


Press contacts

Mark Laudi

Mark Laudi

Press contact Managing Partner (+65) 6223 2249

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