Is It Immoral to Pay for Unpaid Internships?

August 10, 2009

Derek Thomson, over at The Atlantic, has another blog post about unpaid internships – a slightly different issue from unfair internships, as should be kept in mind. I have commented rather extensively over there so I’ll lazily re-post my comments here. His point is that it’s the fault of the college career centers if there is demand for middlemen charging to find internships.

There is a large-scale illegal use of free labor and it’s the fault of the college career services that aren’t making enough efforts to place their students unpaid internships? Well, at least it is an original explanation.

Just because there is demand doesn’t mean that it’s justified (otherwise, why legislate for anything? there’s a demand for speeding!). Students create the demand and resort to middlemen in a race to the bottom between each other to get a (paid) job. Some time ago, they would start by accepting an entry-level salary, less holidays, etc. Fair enough. A few years later, students have to do an internship to gain some experience and then get a job. Then they have to do a second another internship. Then, internships are a necessity and the competition is too high, so to get a leg up, you need to pay to get an unpaid job. Makes you wonder what’s next.

I mean: how else would it happen if it was unfair? People entering the job market are a vulnerable part of the labor market and employers are taking advantage of it. No wonder it’s illegal. Check the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Or go to where we have been blogging about this issue for three years. It’s a scandal hidden in plain sight.


Unpaid Work, but They Pay for Privilege

August 9, 2009

The New York Times has an article about the increase in demand for internships during the crisis and those who take advantage of young graduates who are even more vulnerable than usual to charge them for unpaid internships that are actually unpaid jobs.

With paying jobs so hard to get in this weak market, a lot of college graduates would gladly settle for a nonpaying internship. But even then, they are competing with laid-off employees with far more experience.

To quote a quoted professor of education at Standford University: “This is just ratcheting it up another notch, which is quite frightening.”

And if you wonder why a mainstream media had the guts to cover unfair internships, for a rare time, the explanation is in the byline: “Gerry Shih is a summer intern at The Times. He is paid.” This being said, there is no mention of the legality of it all, even though unfair internships are an illegal practice hidden in plain sight.

Unfair Internships and the media

August 8, 2009

There are a few reasons why unfair internships are still so common: internships are transitional, lawmakers offer them, and, of course, the journalism industry is full of them. Gida Hammami covered the issue at recently:

The journalism industry is highlighted in the report as failing to meet acceptable standards of internships, most significantly in its use of interns as a cheap replacement for full-time staff members.

No wonder it’s so rare that such a widespread illegal practice is mentioned in the media. Too bad: media outlets could ask their free interns to cover the issue !

UK: The Eternal Intern? No thanks

August 6, 2009

There’s a lot of wisdom in the Guardian article from Rachel Bowen today:

“(…) my experience has shown that interning leads to nothing except more interning”.

This is one of the factors which should make the current system of interning unsustainable; young graduates from all walks of life cannot be expected to pay tens of thousands of pounds for an education which is supposed to open doors to great opportunities, only to then be told that what they actually need is experience.”

“What I am concerned about is that internships are simply seen as another hoop for already debt-ridden graduates to jump through (…)”

May you cover this issue more often, Rachel Bowen.

UK: Unfair internships as a barrier to social mobility

August 5, 2009

The British angle on unfair internships seems on average to be more focused on the equal opportunity angle. Working for free has a cost and can’t be afforded by people with a poorer background. Here is an example from an article on Channel 4:

He is effectively paying to work for an MP because he wants a job in a political think tank or as a parliamentary aide, but both demand experience. He can only do his internship because his parents are helping him pay his rent in London. “I’m lucky enough that my parents can help me out financing this thing, but someone from poorer background who doesn’t live in London – they just simply couldn’t afford to do this,” he said.

This is a very valid point and not one that we would dispute. It is not the main point that this blog is making though, as we simply state that a productive work should be paid and that exploitation in the labor market has been outlawed long ago and for good reasons.

The article quoted above does a fairly good job of exposing politicians who offer unfair internships themselves, explaining in part why this practice is allowed to go on for so long.

UK: I don’t feel sorry for interns

August 3, 2009

Is it just a provocation to drive traffic? Anyway, the Guardian’s Linsey Hanley is hammering on unpaid interns and reminding them that there are far worst people in the world. I say this is an excellent argument to serve to people calling the police for a robbery: “Don’t complain, it could have been worse!”

Internships are the surest way to avoid being exploited over the course of your working life.

Be exploited so that you’ll never be exploited? Go figure.

She gets very close to getting it, but no.

Without doubt, it’s an insult to graduates, who have worked hard no matter what their background, to have to work a year or two for free. But that’s not the point.

I’m afraid that is the point. This attempt to ignore the situation, to claim it is irrelevant does not excuse or erase the facts. Some people in a vulnerable segment of the workforce are being exploited because employers are taking advantage of their vulnerability. I do hope that most of them will move on to have a successful career, but it doesn’t justify pitting them against each other when they enter the labour market.

It has to be a ploy to drive traffic. And I fell for it!

UK: An inquiry into unfair internships

August 1, 2009

Could it be happening?!

A government watchdog is to investigate whether companies are exploiting thousands of graduates by employing them on unpaid, long-term internships during the recession, the Guardian has learned.

And even politicians, who make and break the rule, are to be investigated.

A Guardian inquiry has also discovered that MPs could be breaking the rules. Ministers have estimated that unpaid interns work up to 18,000 hours a week inside parliament, a saving of more than £5m a year on the national minimum wage. MPs are each given a staffing allowance of £104,000pa.

This practice is looked at more closely in a separate article. It states the obvious:

However, guidance provided to MPs states that “interns who are obliged to do work under the control of the member or member’s representative are likely to be workers under the minimum wage legislation and so should be paid the minimum wage.”

This interest for unfair internships from a regulatory body is more than welcome. Those who think that it’s ok just because it’s widespread may be in for a surprise. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll follow the inquiry of the Low Pay Commission.