Spotted: another weak defense of unfair internships

February 19, 2012

Every now and then, some people bravely stick out their neck to defend unfair internships. The latest is Dreama Lee, from InternProfits, a website apparently dedicated to their promotion, if their welcome video is to be believed (“overworked people and unemployed youngsters; I see a win-win!”). She wrote an open letter to the New York Times, in response to their debate about unpaid internships.

The first third is an irrelevant attack on Ross Perlin’s credentials. Ross is not making an argument of authority, so I don’t see how attacking the fact that he may not be a “faculty member of an institution of higher education” among other things is of relevance.

Then, the author makes a straw man argument (we’ve seen this before): “So the solution, according to Perlin, is to end all internships.” I am not aware of anyone fighting against unfair internships that has ever made such a proposal. Yet, this is the one the author sets up to attack and discredit.

On the fact that some interns are reading Intern Nation, she thinks that the impact will be to “make the future intern feel like their internship is a waste of time and create more of an “entitlement” mentality before the Gen Y’er even steps foot into the employer’s office, further encouraging a stereotype that many Gen X and Boomers absolutely abhor.” She’s convinced that older people thinking that younger people feel “entitled” is a new thing, invented by baby boomers and Generation Y. Actually, it’s such an old and common thing that there’s a word for it: ageism. So yes older people think so and no, it’s not the fault of young people. Apparently, it’s human nature and Gen Y will likely complain about the Zs, even if they also accept to work for free.

But the crux of her argument is that internships also have advantages. That’s a funny way to put it. Who said they don’t? Seriously? This argument is not a defense of internship. Just because a phenomenon or behavior has upsides does not justify it. Speeding is great: it’ll take you there faster and it’s exciting! Why outlaw speeding! Who cares if it’s dangerous! Heck, think of how good slavery was to the economy of the South. It was thriving! Even for the slaves: a guaranteed job, housing, food and even a husband or wife sometimes. Really, with all these advantages, why were people complaining? Think of most illegal, unfair and outrageous behaviours and you’ll find anupside somewhere (robbers do gain stuff after all!). As silly as it sounds, this is how Dreama Lee is justifying exploitation of young graduates who have to accept serial unpaid jobs because they have no negotiation power.

At the end of it all, despite the snark above or the self-righteousness of the open letter, there is not so much difference between the positions of pro and anti-unfair internships. Even the author praises programs that pay interns and is keen that they interns should be learning something, much like we have nothing against real apprenticeships and support good opportunities to learn in a work environment. And I agree with her that the New York Times was not able to find one credible person to defend unpaid internships.


A debate about unfair internships

February 5, 2012

The New York Times is hosting a debate about unpaid internships (side note: I really wish having been more successful at promoting the use of “unfair internships”). So far, five people have shared their opinion, four against and one in favor. There is Ross Perlin, well-known as the author of Intern Nation, who describes the recent evolution (degradation) of internships. There is Alex Footman, who is suing Fox Searchlight for his own experience as an unpaid intern and who’s making the argument that enforcing the law is he government’s job, not his (agreed). Then, an employment attorney makes the simple point, argued here too that internships are “a valuable idea, if we follow the law”. Raphael Pope-Sussman makes the case that unions should take up the fight to enforce the law and restrict unfair internships (in the UK, the Trade Union Congress does it).

This is all good and thoughtful, but let’s look at the dissenter’s argument. David Law, founder of Above the Law (I’m not joking) makes this interesting argument:

But unpaid internships are more a symptom than a cause of economic weakness. They are so popular right now because many employers, large and small, simply don’t have the ability to create new, full-time, paid positions.

Oh, that’s what it is! The employers really, really want to pay their junior staff, they just can’t afford it! Oh well then. They should pass on the idea to all companies that are going bankrupt: stop paying your staff if you can’t afford it, it’s no big deal. David Law then caps it off with this gem:

In the end, the status quo, while imperfect and inconsistent, may not be that bad.

What he apparently does not realize is that there is no status quo: the situation is getting worse, as Ross Perlin demonstrates. Who, 20 years ago, needed to go through some 5 internships before getting a paid position?

It’s good that the New York Times take up this issue and it’s even better to see that it is so hard to find a good defense of unfair internships.


Time: Working for Free

April 1, 2010

Time magazine has an article about unfair internships with a lead about people who take them many years after they graduated. As one of the people quoted in the article said, the rules are the same regardless of age, so this blog has never paid closer attention to this phenomenon.

The article has an interesting source to measure the increase in unfair internships:

But in the Great Recession, with employment rate hovering near 10%, job-search sites like CareerBuilder and Monster.com are reporting increases in the number of postings for internships.

I had a look on Monster.com and there are about 1,000 internships available at the moment, many of which appear like normal jobs at for-profits companies. Someone is playing with fire:

Companies are often eager for the extra set of hands. Michael Schmidt, an employment attorney in New York City, has seen an uptick in recent months in private employers calling him to find out if they can bring in unpaid interns as a way to cut costs. His answer: volunteering at for-profit companies is, legally, a no-no.

At least, these companies are checking whether it’s too good to be true. Yes, it is. Some nevertheless go for the deal, despite the illegality, the unfairness, the downsides for themselves and the social damage.

Of course, there’s little incentive for employers or interns to blow the whistle, says Robert Trumble, a management professor and the director of the Virginia Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. Workers want experience and the connections that come along with it. (…) The perceived value of that kind of experience helps explain why there’s little organized resistance to unpaid internships in the U.S.

And what will the interns do on their own anyway? Actually, there are things that they can do. The laws need to be enforced.


Low-Paid Interns: The NYT Misses the Point

November 27, 2009

Disappointing article in the New York Times about the rise of “low-paid internships.” It just goes to show, once more, how such a widespread, illegal and unfair practice is ignored by the media. Thankfully, most of the readers’ comments are right on. Popular awareness is increasing. This is an issue waiting to explode.


“Cheap labor”, a.k.a. the intern

March 12, 2009

The Onion once again nails it with a funny piece about internships:

In tough economic times, employers relish the term, “cheap labor,” a.k.a. the intern. Full of vigor and promise, the intern works hard for little or no money.

Oh wait, it’s not The Onion, it’s AdvertisingAge. Not funny.


Happy to work for free

March 4, 2009

Here’s an illustration of why unfair internships thrive as potential employees are weakened. From The Daily Princetonian:

The recession is also boosting the applicant pool at FG Companies, a small boutique investment bank in New York that only offers unpaid internships, said Kai Chan GS ’04, an associate at the firm. “[The downturn] is great for guys like us, honestly, because we’re finding a lot of people who are saying, ‘Yeah, we’re happy to work for you for free,’ ” Chan said. “I noticed last year when we did interviews and said, ‘Just to be clear, this is an unpaid internship,’ some people were wavering,” Chan explained. “This year, when I explicitly start off the interview saying it’s an unpaid internship, they’re fine with that, and just say, ‘Let’s proceed.’ ”

This is the reason why unfair internships are illegal: because they are the consequence of the weak negotiation position of potential interns – exploitive, in other words. Those have no choice but to lower and lower their requirements to even gain experience. The good news is that there is a solution: collective action through legislation. And it already happened: unfair internships are illegal.


Economic crisis, internships crisis

February 25, 2009

The economic crisis is becoming the angle for most of the news coverage and that about internships receives the same treatment. Even the student newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School is worried. This blog will add a category to track its posting related to this topic.

The fact remains: unfair internships are illegal, crisis or not.