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.

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“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.


Virtual internships – virtually real jobs

March 6, 2009

From an article in The Examiner about virtual internships:

When we interview for virtual internship positions, we are really looking for two things. First, interns need to be self-starters. Because they won’t be in our office each day, I need to know that they will be diligent with deadlines, make good use of their time and come back to me if they have the ability to take on additional projects,” said Woofter.

I wonder what makes these positions “internships”?


Unpaid internships: common but illegal

March 5, 2009

Another labor lawyer looks at unfair internships, another layer finds an illegal practice. Michael Tracy:

A common, but frequently unreported labor violation is the use of unpaid interns in violation of minimum wage and possibly overtime laws.  The scenario is fairly typical: a company offers an opportunity to ‘break into the business’ in exchange for the intern working for free.

He also provides his perspective on college credits in return for job experience:

Some companies try to get around the law by requiring that the internship be part of a college program.  However, there is no exception to the law allowed just because the “intern” may receive college credit.

He also has an interesting opinion on the lack of lawsuits:

The main reason that you do not see more lawsuits regarding unpaid internships is that the interns are very unlikely to sue.  In most cases, they fear being blacklisted, as they will undoubtedly need to use the internship as a reference to get any future work.

I would add that interns see their situation as a transition. By the time they file and win a lawsuit, they will have moved on to a proper job. They won’t benefit from their effort. But the law has provisions to address this problem, at least in California:

This is where California’s Private Attorney General Act comes in.  Because this law allows anyone at the company to sue for labor violations, even if they themselves are not affected by the violation, it is now possible for these companies to be brought into compliance with the law.  If you work for a company that uses unpaid interns and would like to put an end to this illegal practice, you should consider bringing a Private Attorney General cause of action.

So if you’re an employee that’s been displaced by an unpaid intern, you have the law on your side.


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.


Slavery is illegal

March 3, 2009

The Examiner sets the bar the lowest when it comes to the legality of internships. How low?

HH: What characteristics of an unpaid internship make the internship illegal?

MM: An unpaid internship itself won’t be illegal unless the person has no choice but to participate—that’s slavery—or the labor or services themselves are illegal, like the sale of controlled substances without a license.

So, selling drugs and slavery make your internship illegal. Exploiters, beware !

The following clarifications from Marcia L. McCormick don’t really help, as she just says that interns are not employees nor contractors. What is the difference, we’re not told. Where it comes closest is “an internship is primarily designed to educate the intern” – and that’s a diluted version of what we read elsewhere that it should not benefit the employers.

This is also the first time that I come across an article with a legal bent that doesn’t mention the Fair Labor and Standards Act and its six criteria.


Madness and Shame

March 2, 2009

Internships-for-sale spark the outrage of Judith Timson in the Globe and Mail.

I’m no fan of unpaid internships. Not only do they penalize the less-affluent kids who can’t afford to work for free, but they are exploitive. Apparently some kids even consider taking out loans to cover the cost of working for free. This is madness. And shame on companies who encourage this to happen.

Madness and shame are words that should appear more often in articles about unfair internships.

Most said at first that buying an internship for their kid was troubling, to say the least. (I mean where does it end? Buying them a middle manager’s job at IBM when they’re 40?)

Exactly: where does it end? Isn’t the middle manager also learning something and getting a leg up for a senior management position?