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.

Five years too many…

July 30, 2011

This blog turns five today. Sigh. Much like its fourth birthday, it is no reason to celebrate. Through those years, the financial crisis seems to have worsen the situation for interns, as employers try to squeeze costs by avoiding to pay their contributing staff. At the same time, there has been a flurry of activity, including a recent book, Intern Nation, and the creation of several blogs, campaigns in the UK especially, and an increased awareness of the problem. At this point it is not clear what will happen next, but one thing is sure: it is not time to fold.

As the quick advice box on the right says, this should be seen more as a website than a blog. It is not meant to follow the news, but to provide resources for interns and food for thought for employers. Use the links at the top to browse the content. And feel free to send suggestions.

Four years too many

July 30, 2010

It’s been four years today that this blog has been addressing the issue of unfair internships. There is no reason to celebrate. This is not a blog that’s meant to last. This is a blog that’s meant to to self-destruct by bringing attention to a scandal hidden in plain sight. It’s hidden behind your newspapers who employ unpaid interns in staff position. It’s hidden in the first job experiences that so many of you had. It’s hidden in the colleges where students are encouraged to take some practical training, even unpaid, because Lord knows their intellectual training makes them worthless and they won’t have the time in the next 40 years to gain practical experience. It’s hidden in the cubicle next to yours.

At least, in those four years, we have seen seen some positive trends. In the UK, there’s a serious campaign around the parliament to ban unfair internships. In the US, the Department of Labor is finally paying attention. In Europe, outside of the UK, there’s been some talks of a European Quality Charter in Internships but other than that, not much. The mainstream media ran a few stories, if not enough by a mile.

Let’s hope that a year from now there will be more to celebrate, and four years from now, we won’t have to be here.

Adam Smith (Institute) weighs in on unfair internships

April 29, 2010

Liam Ward-Proud at the Adam Smith Institute (“The Adam Smith Institute is the UK’s leading innovator [NDLR: I believe this is self-assessed] of free-market economic and social policies.”) has a very engaging and articulated post (rare thing) about one of the premises behind this blog’s position, namely that interns should be paid because employers benefit from their work.

“The basic principle alluded to is completely false.”

You may be surprised to learn that I almost agree with him. Here’s my comment, in case my readership is not already reading Liam regularly.

Thank you for taking the time to review the basic principles behind worker’s wages that UnfairInternships.com puts forward. You’ve certainly refined my own thinking, as the owner of the blog, on the nature of the wages and the morality of unfair internships. What you haven’t done though is to change my view that unfair internships are unfair.

You win: “A wage is a price at which a worker is prepared to sell her/his labour, this price is defined as the equilibrium between what the employer is prepared to pay and the labourer is prepared to sell at.” Of course, you acknowledge that the expected productivity is part of the calculus, so “completely false” was a bit exaggerated. My description was incomplete.

You actually bring in an interesting principle though: the power relationship between the employee and the employer. I dare say that as long as there is unemployment out there, supply exceeds demand and this relationship is in favour of the employer. Actually, regardless of the mechanism, it is plain to see, through the spread of unfair internships, that interns are losing the race to the bottom, accepting to work without pay. This is why there are mechanisms that level the playing field by setting minimum standards and collective bargaining mechanisms. The interns are rarely, if ever, part of a collective bargaining system and, while they should, it seems that they are not yet protected by standards that protect the rest of the labour force.

Which leads us to the idea “workers should be free to value their own labour”. This is true to an extent, the limit being once the individual choices are detrimental to the group. I am not saying anywhere on my blog that unfair internships are not beneficial to the individual interns. They are as beneficial as making a personal sacrifice gives a leg up to the individual. But it also forces everyone else to make that same sacrifice to level the playing field. This competition is all good, but there are minimum standards that offset the lower bargaining power of the interns and they should be enforced for them as for the rest of the labour force.

So your argument is not in favour of unfair internships, it is one against minimum standards and bargaining power. I have no doubt that this blog believes that such standards are detrimental, but it is a debate that your side is not winning in the real world at the moment.

The idea that internships opportunities would disappear if internships had to be fair is actually a good thing. Speed would increase if speed limits were removed, robbery would increase if it wasn’t punished, etc. The idea that the mere existence of something makes it desirable rests on weak moral ground.

Once again, an honest thank you for your coverage and analysis. It was a bit snarky, but I deserve it and it’s all in good fun.

What do you think?

Cheapskates take notice!

February 20, 2010

This is a good use of this website.

Someone is informing employers who post internship offers that appear to break the law that they are playing with fire. It is an excellent idea to refer them to this website as the purpose is primarily to be a resource for those who question this unfair practice and hope to make things change for the best. May the web prove to be a force that will improve internships and the work situation of a vulnerable segment of the workforce.

Are Unpaid Internships Destroying America?

June 15, 2009

This is the provocative title of a post from Derek Thompson at the Business blog of The Atlantic. It is built around Anya Kamenetz’ article in the NYT three years ago. I’ll reproduce my comment here, which sums up arguments made over the years on this blog.

Unpaid internships are often unfair and illegal (see the Fair Labor Standards Act).

The short explanation: if you’re contributing to a company, you deserve a salary. Call it an internship, a job, a contract, an assignment – it’s all the same. If your internship is actually an apprenticeship where you’re a drain on a company that goes out of its way to train you, it’s legal.

Yes, interns gain valuable experience. But aren’t all employees benefiting from their work experience? It leads to improved productivity, pay increases and promotions. Entry-level employees already receive a lower, entry-level salary for their lower productivity.

“I do think the internships paid off, inasmuch as they led to other internships and, eventually, to jobish things.”

This illustrates well the collective action problem: some time ago you could get a job out of school, then to get a leg up, you would do an internships, then everybody does and you need two to get ahead, then everybody has two… This is where we are now. There is a law against it. It is just ignored because graduate students have little power in the job market and their internships are just a transition.

More questions are addressed at UnfairInternships.com. Thanks for talking about the issue.

If by any chance I get visitors coming from The Atlantic looking for more, have a look at the FAQ for more answers or click on the tags such as “Legal” for more references.

Better for the company?

May 9, 2009

In “The Ethicist” column of the New York Times, Roger Randy Cohen, had a look at “coffee run interns“. His first sentence is illuminating:

If only “better for the company” were synonymous with “ethical,” I would have an easier job.

Some employers try to justify hiring an intern under unfair conditions because it will be good for their company, because they couldn’t afford the staff otherwise. That’s called free labor and it’s obviously illegal. Let it be clear: an intern is there for its own benefit and not for that of the company. That is why he is un(der)paid. If the company benefits, pay him and call him an employee.

This is also a good opportunity to clarify the intent of this blog. Some people feel that internships are unfair because they involve menial tasks and are boring. While this is certainly a concern, the main issue that this blog seeks to address is those internships where the work is actually very relevant, but where the employee is not paid or below the legal wage. This practice goes unchecked because the employees are called interns. That doesn’t make it fair or legal.