Unpaid interns: working for free

July 29, 2011

We went from lukewarm to cold on internships-for-credits, but it looks like it has gotten worse out there. Not only are colleges playing along, advertising unfair internships and making up programs with credits for internships without pay, but now they have started managing the expectations of graduates and legitimize what is an illegal and unfair practice. From the Globe and Mail, this quote from a student at Sheridan College:

“That was something [professors] stressed really hard – that we would not get paid”

Wait, there’s more, from another student:

“Humber is holding my diploma up in the air and saying we’re not giving it to you till you do this.”

At least, one law professor from York sees through it:

“My sense is that many employers believe simply calling someone an ‘intern’ relieves them of all employment obligations”.

Exactly. Ask them a simply question: why do you call it an “internship”?



Free labour: Volunteering and Internships

September 18, 2010

I am somewhat surprised that the issue of internships vs volunteering does not come up more often in the comments. Maybe it’s because the distinction is crystal clear to most, which is a good thing. In any case, this article from the Ottawa Citizen has an excellent example of each.


Recently, she signed up as volunteer co-ordinator for the Dress for Success Foundation, which trains and clothes needy women looking for work. While that takes several hours a day, she also volunteers at Goodlife Fitness’ daycare, teaches at Blessed Sacrament Church and is a skating coach for the West Carleton Hockey Association.

Unfair internship:

“A lot of shows have volunteer internships, but they’re very hard to get,” says Borer, who lived with other interns in Los Angeles and was supported by his parents during his stay.

“It’s free labour for the huge corporation, but it’s also experience for me.

“I believe that it will further my résumé, absolutely. I assume it would set me apart from other 20-year-olds who have just finished the same program. It’s a very competitive industry. So if you can do volunteer work, it’s extremely beneficial.”

Very beneficial for you and detrimental to everyone else who now has to work for free to remain competitive. That’s why there’s a law to address this collective action problem.

Now, the bad news.

Molina says those numbers appear to be shrinking because “volunteering isn’t as sexy as an internship,” which is more about getting work experience than contributing to the community.

Oh dear.

On the voluntary nature of unfair internships

July 23, 2010

This piece by Sarah Geraghty is for those who think that unfair internships are “voluntary”.

An American friend, job-searching on Capitol Hill for the previous month (…) uses the rush-hour tailbacks to pass on his concerns about how often he’s been advised to concentrate his search on an unpaid internship rather than an entry-level job. What with him being in his mid-20s, with a cumulative two years of unpaid work experience, including a stint on Capitol Hill, a year in a law firm, not to mention his master’s degree, he’d arrived here assuming that he’d paid his internship dues. Apparently not.


But I am bashing a system that is undoubtedly prohibitive for a large portion of college students who made it into college on merit but at a certain point hit a wall which, they are told, is unavoidable, giving the more affluent ones the chance to race ahead. And I’m also bashing a system that encourages students with expensive degrees and often some degree of work experience to compete against each other for the privilege of sitting at the front desk of an office, fielding phone-calls from verbally abusive stone-mad constituents, or maintaining a “filing” system that’s comprised of newspaper cuttings from 2005.

They are voluntary like crossing the street is voluntary.

Young, Educated and Unpaid

July 22, 2010

Jett Wells: “I’m an unpaid intern who made a short documentary about unpaid internships.”

You can find it below and on the Huffington Post where Jett, the son of a film critic, has 20 entries, apparently all unpaid. At least, they let him publish this piece. When will the media realize that they need to lead by example? Or that they can’t be neutral on an issue from which they benefit so much?

“the amount (sic) of interns and companies that employ interns who turned down the opportunity to talk to me because they were afraid was remarkable. When did unpaid internships become the norm, and why? That’s what I wanted to get to the bottom of.”

I’m not sure that the video accomplishes this goal, but naming the companies that refused to talk to him would already have been quite informative. What’s so embarrassing? It’s legal and moral, right? Interns do it voluntarily after all, so what is there to hide?

NYT: Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say

April 5, 2010

The New York Times published an important article about unfair internships last week-end. Important because it takes the right perspective – they are likely illegal and unfair – and because this paper is influential (just look at some immediate coverage). Important also because the public is eager to hear about this issue, as evidenced by the 2nd position in the list of the most emailed articles today – two days after it was published – and most emailed for the business section.

So, what’s in there? Mostly, some enlightenment from the mainstream media that millions of people are being exploited in the workplace. Good for the NYT. But what’s most interesting is the section about the Labor Departments finally taking action, at the state and federal levels.

The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.

About time. We will cover some of these cases soon. Also, there are some interesting statistics.

In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, up from 9 percent in 1992. This means hundreds of thousands of students hold internships each year; some experts estimate that one-fourth to one-half are unpaid.

It’s really too bad that it ends with the vague “some experts”. I’m not asking for a private eye report nor an academic quote, but the NYT ought to source better its statistics.

We speak often about the role of regulators, employers and interns to end this practice, but those who publicize internships – legitimizing the postings and increasing competition among interns for a given position, among other things – also have a constructive role to play. While some listing websites take a hands-off approach, washing their hands from their role for promoting an illegal and unfair practice, but others are not so shy.

“A few famous banks have called and said, ‘We’d like to do this,’ ” Ms. Steinfeld said. “I said, ‘No way. You will not list on this campus.’ ”

Sometimes, it’s so obvious that an employer is trying to take advantage of the system, one ought to refuse the listing. Actually, any listing website should commit to apply the FLSA rules, if only to remain legal.

The story also quotes a business lawyer that pleads in favor of her clients:

Camille A. Olson, a lawyer based in Chicago who represents many employers, said: “One criterion that is hard to meet and needs updating is that the intern not perform any work to the immediate advantage of the employer. In my experience, many employers agreed to hire interns because there is very strong mutual advantage to both the worker and the employer. There should be a mutual benefit test.”

Mutually beneficial arrangements are not illegal at all, they are even encouraged. They are called “jobs” and the are usually paid a legal wage. If the intern is “beneficial” to the company,it means that they are profitable and hence they are entitled to a paycheck. This is certainly not an age-old principle that we want to overturn.

Media coverage of the NYT coverage

April 4, 2010

The New York Times had an article about unfair internships yesterday (Growth of Unpaid Internships May be Illegal, Officials Said) and suddenly the media realizes that it exists. Not that it’s all original and articulated reporting, but still, it’s a little jolt, a minute of attention for such a widespread illegal practice.

“If you’re an unpaid intern or the employer of an unpaid intern, don’t be surprised if you hear from the Labor Department soon.” Labor Department to Rescue College Kids From Illegal Unpaid Internships, New York Magazine

Let’s hope so.

“I’m alarmed about the increasing number of unpaid internships.  Unless an internship is with a nonprofit organization or qualifies for at least three college credits, all interns should be paid. ” Tough Choices: Paid, Unpaid or Purchased Internships, Chicago Blog

Not so sure about the credit solution, but well-intentioned. It’s not about being credited, it’s about being a trainee.

“Have you had an unpaid internship? Did it break the laws outlined in the article? Should the Department of Labor continue to crack down on unpaid internships and will this make finding summer work harder?” Unpaid Volunteer Interns of the World Unite?, The Daily Princetonian

I really wish the student newspapers would do more to cover this issue than link to the occasional and rare NYT article.

“Wealthy corporations and organizations take advantage of the highly competitive job market, which now resembles a pack of lions fighting over the carcass of a wildebeest, and exploit the fears and ambitions of college students and recent grads to create a slave labor situation that not only betrays the foundational spirit of internships, but may also violates labor laws.” Battle to end slave-internships more important than it seems, True/Slant

This is a nice explanation for those who think that unfair internships are “voluntary”.

“The New York Times reported Saturday Oregon, California and New York are among those states where investigations have been launched.” Business News: Unpaid internships under scrutiny, UPI.com

No new reporting other than quoting “the Times said”. Their tag line: “100 years of quality journalism”…

“One of the most despicable sides to these false no-/hypolow – pay “internships” is that the colleges and universities are colluding in it. Nay, even pushing and promoting it.” Commenter on Students Said to Be Among Victims of Boom in Unpaid Internships, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Speaking of, shouldn’t they be covering this issue more than the NYT?

“Check out the largest (and often, smallest) radio station groups. As an executive, I was told to hire new intern(s), and use them for as long as possible. I was then told to let them go, and never offer a job, asa the position would then be filled by the next intern. Totally free labor, and more money to be enjoyed by the ownership. By the way, I didn’t comply, and had to resign to maintain a measure of dignity. This policy is probably marginally legal, but highly unethical. Another of the many problems with broadcast media across the nation.” Commenter on Crackdown on Illegal Internships, from The Daily Beast

Thank God for the commenters because the Daily Beast did nothing but quote the Times. Same thing at the Huffington Post.

Now let’s see: how long will it last? Let’s hope that this week-end coverage will not be seen as the gollden age of media coverage of unfair internships, but the beginning of a movement.


Updated, because it’s too funny.

“Which companies have unpaid internships? Well, the NY Times, for one.” Come And Get Your Unpaid NY Times Internship, Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion

Ha !

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.