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Unpaid Internships, Slave Labor or a Foot in the Door?

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Considering the current economic climate, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that a rise in unpaid, and in most cases, illegal internships have emerged in recent years. Law makers and federal and local investigators have taken interest in unpaid internships, “convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws,” as the New York Times put it.

The heightened concern is that companies are finding unpaid internships as a stealthy method to cut salary costs by employing these interns and assigning entry-level work duties rather than make it a benevolent investment opportunity by providing vocational training, the latter qualifying it, by law, as an unpaid internship.

As federal labor law enforcers are probing into major companies across the nation, students have been hesitant to speak up, fearing that it could negatively affect their career possibilities with that employer.

However, after the NYTimes article, The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not was published, many students wrote in to the editor, complaining of ill-treatment and menial “mind-numbing” tasks they were assigned to do, which were relatively unrelated to nature of the business and industry they were pursuing, calling it “free labor.”

One intern who went on five unpaid internships and is still currently unemployed considered herself a “slave” and “wondered how it was legal for [her] to complete tasks that should be paid.”

“Whenever I finished ‘work’ at my unpaid internship, I felt used and dirty. My worst unpaid experience occurred at my internship with a record label. I put stickers on thousands of CDs, which made me feel like a machine as my brain began to numb.” -Dana Harada, Urbana, IL, April 7, 2010/NYTimes, Letter to the Editor

According to law, six federal legal criteria must be complied with and fulfilled before a company can qualify an intern as “unpaid.” The U.S. Labor Department’s acting director, Nancy Leppink, has reason to believe that “many employers [fail] to pay even though their internships [do] not comply with the six federal legal criteria.”

The idea of an unpaid intern according to federal law is that a company gains no precipitous profit from the intern’s work or assigned task, but rather, as a I stated earlier, is an employer benefaction vested in the intern.

Unfortunately, despite this, students are seeing unpaid, illegal internships as their only chance for survival in a market of fewer available jobs.

“If you want to be in the music industry, that’s the way it works. If you want to get your foot in the door somehow, this is the easiest way to do it.” Dana John, N.Y.U. senior, referring to unpaid internships. (NYTimes)

Elaine Fischer of the Washington State Department Labor said in an article by the Western Front that “her department rarely receives complaints from unpaid interns, though she said she is aware that many interns in Washington [State] are working hard for companies without compensation.”

She went on to say, “Everything about an internship should be for the benefit of the intern. As an employer, you are making an investment in this person, and it might be more than you get back in return.”

Employers are fighting back in the debate saying that labor laws are outdated and in need of overhauling, referring to the 1947 Supreme Court decision that birthed the six criteria.

The NYTimes article reported that one attorney, speaking on her experience representing companies, said “many employers agreed to hire interns because there is a very strong mutual advantage to both the worker and the employer.”

Regrettably, evidence is showing a burgeoning rate of company-incited free labor, where a “mutual advantage” becomes largely an advantage for the employer, not the student.

“…fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience for their résumés. Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.” (NYTimes)

The catch-all for college students is whether or not spending an entire summer in an unpaid internship is wise or unwise? Less wealthy students who have financial demands at home or to their own expenditures can not necessarily afford to spend a summer away profitless. However, do those students have less of a chance finding employment in their desired field sans an unpaid internship.

Questions we need to ask ourselves:

Should the government investigate and maximize the law?

How would stiffer labor laws affect an eager intern when the unemployment amongst workers age 20-24 has increased to nearly 16% (WSJ)

What happens to a student’s potential career in a white collar world without an internship?

As of late, no one has the answers.

We Want Your Opinion!

Have you completed an unpaid internship? What do you think?


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