Unpaid Internships: Education or Exploitation?

When you work, you get paid. This is a reality that dictates the U.S.’s economy. It doesn’t matter if you are a fast food server, a ranch hand or a CEO. Our moral codes and laws demand you are compensated for your work. This concept may seem obvious, yet there is an entire group of people who are exempt from it. These people are unpaid interns.

With over fifty percent of graduates having held internships today, they are seemingly necessary resume padding. As an MSU Science, the Environment, and Technology student Sarah Gilkerson, and intern for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the National Student Exchange MSU Office, puts it, “For grant work, scholarships, future employment, and graduate schools, it is extremely important to show that you have obtained experience.” Most interns agree, the experience gained from working in their field furthers their education and develops their skills. The only problem is, they aren’t getting what they bargained for.

As a recent Time Magazine article about internship law recently explained, internships started out exclusive to the medical field. Today we would call them residencies. In the 1930s there was an increase of employers and young people who believed internships would be advantageous in many more, if not all, fields. In light of this, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 included a legal rulebook regarding interns. Remaining the law to this day, it highlights six requirements internships must meet to be legal. These laws, many interns argue, are being broken.

Under this act, an internship must be solely for the benefit of the applicant and the employer must receive no immediate gain from the addition of the intern. This is not the case, however, in the internship world. Interns are typically expected to do whatever the administrators demand of them. There are exceptions but, as a whole, interns generally are used to do the dirty work no one else in the company wants to do, regardless if it is advantageous to the learning process. Internships more often exist for the benefit of the company than the benefit of the intern’s education.

The law also states that an intern cannot displace regular staff members. Increasingly this law is broken as employers take on interns to decrease the number of staff they must pay. Oftentimes, interns are expected to take on staff roles with little training or support and no pay. Clearly, they are not seen as people to be taught, but as people to be used. Current unpaid internship working conditions are in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Several court cases are currently under deliberation concerning unpaid internships but no clear ruling has been made on the issue.

To fully understand why it is ridiculous to assume students are able to take on unpaid internships we must understand the student body. Dispel the myth that university students have enough money to be in college; the U.S. student debt has surpassed 1.1 billion. On top of loans, many students work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. This is not a case of rich-kid entitlement. If students cannot afford school when they are being paid to work, how can they be expected to work without pay?

This creates a system where only a privileged few can afford to work unpaid internships, promoting class discrimination. It allows the wealthy elite to move swiftly up the economic and academic ladders while the majority of the student body is left with debt and unpaid resumes, making future employment more difficult to obtain.

Noah Beard, a former intern on two Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) farms in Georgia and Virginia, recalled he was “… treated humanely but not equally …” Many interns agree, feeling they didn’t were not respected or equal to other employees in their internships. Former intern for Equality Maine and current supervisor for multiple social activism movements, including Mainers United for Marriage and NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, Leslie Beliveau, commented, “In the non-profit field… interns are treated humanely… Though, how humane can it be if they’re not getting paid?” As she points out, even in the best-case scenarios unpaid interns can not be treated equally because their lack of payment defines them as inferior.

Sadly, unfair treatment in the workplace can go further than disrespectful glances and mild remarks. This October, according to CNN News, New York Judge Kevin Castel ruled “New York City’s Human Rights Law’s protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns when hearing a case on sexual harassment in the workplace.” In this case the company’s bureau chief harassed an intern, but because she was unpaid, she had no legal protection. With the power dynamic already critical in such a work environment and over half of all workers having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in 2008 according to AWARE, harassment is a concern for all interns and a reality for many. Their lack of legal protection creates a literal “get out of jail free” card for the perpetrators of these crimes.

Many would argue the students are compensated in college credit. Even when this is true, this argument still holds little merit. A student has already paid in college tuition to be taught material and receive college credit. In theory internships would be equivalent to attending classes, if not better, but employers have twisted the interns’ role for their own profit. The result is interns are seen as tools to use, not humans to educate. By paying for the credit to work, the intern is really paying twice; once with their tuition money and once with their time. Imagine telling a builder she must fix your home free of charge to gain experience in her field. No worker would take up such an offer, yet students do it every year.

As we can see, the facts and laws supporting the illegality of unpaid internships are abundant. They are legal loopholes that allow sexual harassment in the workplace. Interns are not being given proper training before being thrown into the workplace. Their positions are not beneficial first and foremost to them, but rather to the companies ‘hiring’ them.

Behind all this information, however, sits a moral dilemma. Every staff member of a company is viewed as an equal and receives protection under labor laws. Every customer or client of a company is also respected by the staff and protected under sexual harassment laws. Unpaid interns, fitting into neither category, are left legally unprotected, unequally treated and unemployed despite their busy work week. Is it right to not pay workers or extend legally protection to them?

It is important to note that not all unpaid interns feel they should be monetarily compensated. Gilkerson, speaking on her past experience as an intern at the Smithsonian recounted, “It was the best experience I have ever had and just being fortunate enough to be chosen was reward in and of itself.” However, she did go on to explain that without outside grants, it would not have been financially plausible.

Internships can be positive and Gilkerson is not incorrect in her thinking. Personally students may be willing to be unpaid interns, but this is not about personal preferences. It’s about paying people for their work as well as the legal and ethical implications of doing so. The practicality of internships cannot excuse companies’ unwillingness to pay valuable workers. Interns, like all other workers, should be protected under the law and compensated for their work with more than college credit.

If we, as a society, do not compensate them, we are sending a clear signal of inequality in the work place. In a globalizing world and economy, do we really want to be a country that is too cheap to follow our own labor laws? Especially when we claim to be a model for economic development? We must look closely at what message we are sending to our youth, our country and the world.

For an internship to be legal, as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, it must meet these six criteria:

  • The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  • The employer and the intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.