Unpaid Internships or Free Labor?

Congratulations to MSU’s fall graduates and to those set to graduate this spring. Academic degrees are unarguably difficult to obtain. After all, less than a third of U.S. adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. So, graduating is quite the commendable accomplishment. Yet, the rewards of such an expensive and time consuming feat are often underwhelming. Awaiting MSU’s graduating class is the realm of internships; a realm that has become grossly corrupt.

The line differentiating indentured servitude from an unpaid internship is blurry at best. The underlying issue is that graduates are actively seeking out these positions and they are doing so involuntarily. Entry-level positions that used to demand nothing more than a degree are now requiring experience, an intangible thing that is replacing money as an internship wage. That is not to say that paid internships are non-existent or inaccessible but the seemingly mythical high-paying internship is quite the rarity.

Obviously, indentured servitude is identified by the laborers’ inability to remove themselves from their unpaid positions but how different is that from the graduate’s situation? Unpaid interns possess both the freedom and capacity to leave their unpaid, or underpaid, positions for another unpaid, or underpaid, position elsewhere. This notion is a set of shackles cleverly disguised as freedom. For some, however, even this false freedom is out of reach.

My experience as a community health major has shown me that six-credit internships are graduation requirements for most majors in the Health and Human Development department. What this entails is paying MSU for the inflated cost of a six-credit course, and then working a potentially wageless position for an entire semester. Full-time students may not notice the cost of the internship as MSU charges a flat rate for 12 to 21 credits. However, numerous students enroll into their internships at part-time status. I spent an entire summer paying one institution to work for free at another. There is something perplexing about the existence of such an inherently wrong system but it is equally perplexing how willing students, and graduates, are to embrace this unethical process. Unethical is the qualifier here because, while not morally correct, unpaid internships are legal.

The U.S. Department of Labor outlines six criteria that define the legality of unpaid internships. So long as the position fits the guideline, it is considered a legal form of employment. However, plenty of internships tend to bend, if not break, these rules. The fourth criterion, for example, states that “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.” If this criterion was truly heeded, why then would institutions be in constant demand of acquiring interns? Currently, Glacier National Park is seeking a “human resources intern.” This position requires that the applicant be a student who possesses “the ability to handle large volumes of work.” The advertisement also states that in addition to the position requiring “working long hours, weekends and holidays” the student “will assist in other departments or with other job duties as requested or necessary,” basically establishing that the student is an employee in a position advantageous to the institution. While the advertisement claims free housing and meals are provided, there is no mention of financial payment. As this is a student position, the intern must pay their university to work the “long hours, weekends and holidays” described in the advertisement.

There is no question that the Department of Labor’s criteria are not being met. The question is why institutions like Glacier Park, Inc. feel so comfortable disregarding these criteria that they openly describe illegal internships in advertisements. Clearly, these situations are going without penalty or else there would be some level of fear deterring employers from hiring in such a manner. If that is the case, the criteria should be cast aside and unpaid internships should be made illegal altogether.