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Why Unpaid Internships Are An Unethical Luxury

This week, Condé Nast resumed its internship program after shuttering it due to a class-action lawsuit in 2013. That controversy sparked a national dialogue on unpaid labor, one that’s important to revisit in these uncertain times. Currently, about 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid (Washington Post), and new research indicates that number may be increasing (NBC News). Yet at the same time, a young workforce is eagerly looking for potential opportunities to gain experience this summer after a year disrupted by COVID-19. How do we reconcile the inequities of the industry with the desire to learn and grow?

Unpaid internships blossomed in the 1970s, where there was a higher rate of college graduates than ever before. The rise of increased supply was well-timed with a workforce that needed less labor-intensive roles than ever before, thanks to the rise of technology. Internships became a way for companies to get more hungry and skilled workers on projects at a much lower cost, effectively replacing the entry-level job (Time). Over time, entry-level employers grew to expect employees to have this experience. 


Support Pay Our Interns, an organization advocating for paid internships across all work sectors.

Donate to organizations offering funding to ease the burden of taking internships, like the Black Girl 44 Scholarship and Latinx44 Scholarship Program.

Advocate for the compensation of any unpaid interns at your organization.

If you have the capacity, consider offering mentorship to those entering a new career path so they can generate experience with more flexible terms.

But these came to a head after the lawsuits referenced above. In 2013, two former interns from W and The New Yorker sued, citing that they were underpaid for the work they contributed at their offices (one individual was paid $1/hour to organize accessories in the fashion closet) (Reuters). Similar lawsuits in fashion and entertainment led to a shift in the industry, and the unpaid internship became less popular, moving to college credit or a small stipend. However, the U.S. Department of Labor still allows employers to offer internships without pay as long as they meet allow employers to offer unpaid internships, on the condition that they can be proven as “educational” (dol.gov). And often, the light compensation does little to change the conditions that make these opportunities untenable.

It’s clear that working an unpaid internship takes a lot of privilege. Many people can’t financially afford to work for free and are forced to either decline opportunities or work an additional job to sustain themselves (The Eyeopener). It also takes a lot of time privilege; people with kids at home or other time-consuming responsibilities might not be able to get away.  But internships like these have more lasting implications, too. Often, entry-level roles are filled from unpaid internships, which means that those with the most privilege to weather these roles are first to be hired (NACE). This can accelerate the lack of diversity and representation at major companies. 

But on a broader scale, it starts creating a narrative of worth and value around our youth. There’s a correlation between knowledge and capabilities with having an internship. Young people that can’t get access to an internship may not be perceived as someone that deserves the same level of recognition. When access to internships is already to center those privileged, it’s easy to see how those from marginalized backgrounds can suffer from the insinuation that they are “less than” in the workforce. This subtle form of bias adds to the layers of discrimination that people with marginalized identities face in the workplace. 

Important to note that many internships require candidates to be in school, which even further excludes youths that aren’t pursuing a degree and older people that might be starting their careers for the first time.

Some internships offer college credit as compensation. Although that offers some sort of recognition for work completed, it often costs more than it might be worth. Most students still have to pay the university for those credits accumulated, which increases their financial burden instead of easing it (Washington Post). You can argue that they would have had to pay for those credits anyway, but is that justification to extract labor? Some colleges have waived these fees.

“Experience doesn’t pay the bills. An intern cannot go to the grocery store, go to the checkout line, and when the cashier says cash or credit you can’t pay with experience. You can’t go to your landlord and pay your rent with experience. That’s the key thing here. No one is denying that the main purpose of education is to get experience. It is. But people need a paycheck to pay for bills while they’re getting that experience.”

Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, for NBC News

Some people are quick to defend unpaid internships for a few reasons. First, there’s the perception that people have to earn their dues before being compensated for their labor. This reasoning tends to ignore that students who receive internships while in college already earn those dues in class all day – often racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the process. Others admonish that unpaid internships are the only way that smaller businesses with tight budgets can gain extra labor. We know that small organizations often thrive off of volunteer support, and are often necessary to reach scale. However, the normalization of unpaid internships is reinforced by large, multimillion corporations, not small businesses. 

If you want to participate in an unpaid internship, by all means. But let’s shift the expectation that everyone can, and must, to thrive. If you’re an employer hiring someone new to your industry, consider placing less emphasis on internship experience during the interview process. If unpaid internships are absolutely necessary for your work, ensure you’re offering as much care and attention to the burden it places on its participants. And most importantly, notice how our appreciation of labor shapes our perception of the worth and value of entire communities.

1920 1281 Nicole Cardoza

Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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