Subsidizing an illegal practice: unpaid jobs

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sara Lipka talks about subsidies for internships, or what I’d be happy to call “the grants [that] allow employers to keep internships unpaid — and encourage students to line up willingly for wageless work.”

This website is not exactly about student getting money for their internships. It’s about ending the unfair practice of offering unpaid jobs and justifying it by calling them “internships”. Of course, as a result, those “false interns” should be paid for their contribution to the organization, as any other employee. This is why subsidies for internships are not seen as a solution, but as an enabler for the problem.

Quoted is one of the most baffling reason why this illegal practice is so widespread:

“It’s certainly not fair,” says Mr. Oldman, of Vault, “but it’s just something that’s accepted.”

Why is it? First, and it should be reminded to those who say that in a free market students are not forced to accept unpaid jobs, “an internship used to be optional, an added bonus. But for many of today’s overprogrammed college students, it has become a critical career move — and a rite of passage.” The students have no bargaining power (ever heard of a “Recent Graduates Union”?) and they have no choice but to “collaborate in their own victimization” as is put by David L. Gregory, a professor of law at St. John’s University, in New York, who has studied the legal rights of interns. Second, employers are just too tempted by the perspective of cheap or free labour.

And finally, this practice of subsidizing internships is not helping: “It makes me wonder if it sort of enables the employers,” Mr. Vogt says. “In a way you set up the whole situation to continue status quo.” Universities may mean good, but they do more harm: “You make two students happy,” she says, “and maybe two employers, but even at a small campus, it’s at the expense of many others.” This is why “UCLA does not have a universitywide grant program.”

This acceptance doesn’t mean that it’s fair or legal.

Labor lawyers are not convinced. Some internships may be voluntary apprenticeships, they say, within the law. But they see widespread violations among employers — particularly for-profit corporations — that benefit from free labor.

How to get out of it? Students should be able to rely on the support of the institutions that are closest to them, universities being the first to come to mind.

Kathy Sims, director of career services at the University of California at Los Angeles, thinks colleges should be stronger advocates for their students. And stipends, she says, are the wrong approach. What colleges should do, says Ms. Sims, is try to persuade employers to pay interns fair wages. Employers call her office daily, she says, to ask for help designing internships. She argues for decent salaries. She tells employers that, among other benefits, they will attract a more diverse pool of candidates.

Here’s to universities who address the problem rather than enabling it.


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