Interns: Exploited Labor (Or Petulant Whiners)

I. Phoebe Maltz Bovy examines the unpaid intern and distills much of what has been written about unpaid interns to this: “Interns who complain about not getting paid are often not understood as exploited labor, but as petulant whiners; bratty if they expect their parents to support them, but equally bratty if they ask their bosses to pay them.”

II. In Dissent, Madeleine Schwartz looks to history to see what can be done; she finds parallels between “women’s work” and the Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s and the fight for pay to interns now (and more than parallels—”According to one study by Intern Bridge, a research and consulting firm, more than three in four unpaid interns were women”).

III. More unpaid intern stories are right here.

IV. I’m not going to illustrate this post with a picture of Lauren Conrad, because: See I.

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6 Comments / Post A Comment

Markovaa (#1,509)

As someone who had three major (1 summer, 2 full year) internships, two of which were unpaid, and who works in a field staffed with many unpaid interns, I have very strong views on this subject.

1. If your office can not function without the unpaid intern, then they deserve to be compensated for their work. Essentially, the office has displaced a full employee with salary and benefits for someone who does the same amount of work but at no cost. If a company/organization is saving at least 40,000 dollars/year the least they could do is give the intern a weekly stipend.

2. For profit companies should not have unpaid interns. Period. End of story. It’s totally shitty for a for profit company to turn a profit on the backs of essentially slave labor. If you can’t make money without an army of unpaid interns, there is something wrong in your business plan.

3. I don’t think it is the worst practice for non-profits. However, I do think non-profits should keep their interns on a part-time schedule and should be helpful towards their unpaid interns professional development. This can mean as little as blocking out an hour of your (as a supervisor’s) time to talk to them about their resume, point them towards resources, and teach them how an organization actually works. The last organization I interned with (for money this time!) had monthly intern seminars where we met with heads of departments and they talked about their jobs and career paths.

Paying your interns is a win-win for everyone. By getting a stipend (or the luxury internships I have heard about with a small hourly rate!) an intern feels as if their work is valued. When an intern/employee feels valued, they work harder.

Sallymander (#3,159)

I majored in two mostly unrelated subjects as an undergrad. In one of these fields, unpaid internships were the norm. In the other, they were unheard of; internships for (excellent) pay were plentiful. Guess which interest became a career and which one didn’t? It’s crazy for employers to expect students to have resumes packed with internship experiences when those internships offered are mostly unpaid.

OllyOlly (#669)

@Sallymander Yup. Same exact thing happened to me. I took business internships over international non-profits, and now am employed in the finance industry.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

I did a couple of unpaid internships (3, actually). One of these was for an international non-profit, and it was the worst working experience of my life. They basically outsourced work to me – tasks that WERE done by employees as well – but with no context provided as to the purpose or how the work fit into the organization or anything else educational or instructive. They also almost never spoke with me: I was given an office to work in and they emailed tasks to me and I emailed or posted the work. So I never even managed to form relationships.

The other significant unpaid internship was for an engineering company while studying abroad. It was unpaid because legally, they were not allowed to pay a non-citizen, and internships were also somewhat unusual for the country in general. But my supervisor was so impressed and felt strongly about the fact that the company was using my work, so she went to the owner and had the company cut me a leaving gift stipend. They also made a point to introduce me to everyone in the company and teach me about the projects (as I had no prior engineering background). When I left, they wrote me a great reference.

As a result, I tend to think your attitude towards interns says a lot about your company as a whole. The international non-profit was doing great work, but I would never want to be employed there. I didn’t apply to a posting even in my darkest unemployed moment.

Laurabean (#3,040)

I have a friend who approached someone who works in our field about doing an unpaid internship, and she said, “I think those are unethical. I can only afford to have you come in for a few hours each week, but I will pay you for that time.” My jaw dropped when my friend told me that story. I thought that was such a cool response.

r&rkd (#1,657)

The majority of internships are work-for-free arrangements that do not qualify as “traineeships” and therefore violate minimum wage laws. What we need is aggressive enforcement from the Department of Labor, and for universities to blacklist employers using internships to skirt the minimum wage.

Private enforcement is not likely to make much of a difference, as interns take the position knowing that the only benefit is a good reference which would be destroyed by a lawsuit. But sometimes interns do sue, and I would love to see more of that.

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