Debating the legality of internships

There’s an interesting discussion going on at Model Mayhem, a site about photography and modelling, about the legality of internships. Unpaid internships are common in this business and a quote from got the conversation started.

Since I’m not a member of this site, I’ll address a few points here, even though many are already discussed in the FAQ and Resources sections of this blog.

If someone wants/accepts an unfair internships, it’s their own business.

This someone is putting everybody else one step behind. The fact is that this practice is endemic. People who do not want to take an internship now have to do so because they compete for an actual job against people who have internship experience. It’s a collective action problem.

An internship is a great way to learn and get into the business.

That’s very true. And so is a first job. An unfair internship is not better than a first job to learn a profession. The only reason why the former replaces the latter is competition between new entrants on the job market that lowers the bar.

Congressmen have interns.

It would not make it legal, but if they are offering unfair internships it may explain why they are not acting much against this form of labor exploitation. This being said, I am not privvy to the contracts between interns and congressmen and I don’t know what is the salary offered.

Not all internships are bad.

Also very true. This is why this website is about unfair internships. When internships are shaped like apprenticeships, they are a very good way to learn without being exploited. When they’re paid a legal wage, it’s just a job.

Is volunteering evil then?

No. The difference is generally that the organization does not derive a profit from your work.


4 Responses to Debating the legality of internships

  1. m.a. says:

    I understand volunteering and interning without pay to be two different things: volunteering is a purely altruistic activity, whereas interning without pay is usually a temporary way to gain skills that will eventually result in financial gain.

    From Wikipedia:

    Volunteering is the practice of people working on behalf of others without being motivated by financial or material gain. Volunteering [is] intended to promote good or improve human quality of life.

  2. exintern says:

    Indeed, volunteering or internships are two very different things. Unfortunately, some people confuse the two and use the example of volunteering to justify unfair internships.

  3. brassai says:

    Congressional interns are considered volunteers under federal labor law. Using an unpaid intern as free labor is legal for a government agency or a non-profit organization. It’s also legal for the smallest for-profit companies. The last time I checked this was defined as a company that grossed less than 100K annually.

    The abuse occurs with the vast bulk of for-profit companies. Nothing can be done to enforce the labor laws unless the unpaid intern files a complaint. And since those working unpaid internships are doing so to build their resume and network in their field, they are extremely unlikely to do that. They would be cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

    One is not likely to find any objective discussion of the matter in the professional media. They are among the biggest abusers.

    With the current economic downturn, what I suspect may happen is that the abuse will become so gross and widespread that it will become a political hot potato. Those who claim that exploiting unpaid interns as free labor is appropriate under the law have to engage in a lot of legalistic fudging to justify it. That sort of thing doesn’t play well under widespread scrutiny.

  4. exintern says:

    Thanks for your interest. That’s very interesting. Do you have the reference to the law that states that small businesses are not subject to this law? I’d be happy to blog about it and add it to the references.

    The intern is not the only one who can file a complaint. See this post.

    I agree with you regarding the role that the media is likely to play and I do hope that the situation will reach a point where it will become a hot potato. It’s been under the radar for too long.

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