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End Internships

The unpaid internship system is unfair to students and exploitative to workers — young women in particular.

By Malcolm Harris


(Photo: WILPF/Flickr)

There are a lot of myths and legends about unpaid interns. These bright-eyed workers provide the lowest-level labor in many high-profile industries, from entertainment to journalism to politics, but they seem to subsist only on recommendation letters and college credit. Since someone must be feeding them, the public is left imagining trust funds and cushy parental allowances. If these kids can afford to work for free, they must be rich already.

There’s some common sense behind this logic, but just because unpaid internships are easier for the children of the rich doesn’t mean that’s the decisive factor in who gets which positions. If that were the case, paid internships would be (comparatively) more accessible to students from working-class backgrounds. In fact, though, paid internships are generally better than unpaid internships — in terms of workplace protections, future outcomes, and getting paid instead of not getting paid. If there are better internships and worse internships, we should already have some idea about how they’re distributed.

When they started their survey of over 27,000 undergraduates in 2009, the research and consulting firm Intern Bridge assumed that the unpaid positions would go to students from wealthier families, but that’s not exactly what they found. Respondents from families with annual incomes over $80,000 tended to take unpaid internships slightly less often than those from poorer backgrounds, 40 versus 46 percent. It’s not a clear conclusion (and it’s also a manipulation of the data), but it does complicate the preconceived notion.

When you look at the other demographic breakdowns, you find a better explanatory variable. Engineering, computer science, and business majors had the most paid internships in the survey, while education, social sciences, health sciences, and communications majors work mostly unpaid. These majors are less correlated with family income than with gender. That shouldn’t be surprising: Most women’s work has historically gone unwaged, and equal pay is an ongoing policy struggle. Commentators have not generally included unpaid internships in the category of gender exploitation, but those positions would probably fit, especially when you take into account the special loopholein federal workplace sexual harassment law that exempts unpaid interns from protections because they’re unpaid — a group that just happens to include many more women than men.

Take one or two fancy universities or big corporations out to the woodshed for credentialing exploitative internships, and the rest will get in line.

According to the Intern Bridge study, around 30 percent of unpaid intern respondents come from families making under $40,000 a year, which is significantly below the national median household income. Supporting an unpaid intern requires a whole extra salary, and these families don’t have it to spare. How do the interns make it from week to week? Like most people who need money to survive, they get jobs. Paying jobs, in addition to their unpaid internships. That, and not spending much money.

In early July, New York Times reporter Katie Shepherd wrote about the magical creature that is the Washington, D.C., unpaid intern. Though my own D.C. college internship was part of the paid 43 percent of non-profit gigs (at least according to the Intern Bridge study), I can confirm that the unwaged are a crucial part of the capital’s summer ecosystem. Unpaid interns work hard, not just for their own good, and not just at their internships. Shepherd’s main subject is Dominic Peacock, an unpaid intern at the National Congress of American Indians and a night-shift busser at a hotel restaurant. It’s not clear from the article what percentage of his 60- to 75-hour workweeks is paid versus unpaid, but 60 to 75 hours of work is 60 to 75 hours of work.

It’s no surprise that Peacock’s internship is named in the piece, while his paid job is at “a hotel.” If all goes as planned, Peacock probably won’t have space on his resume to list the latter there either. Interns are putting in time to build their professional skills and connections; they don’t have much incentive to foreground their part-time jobs. If your co-workers are going to the bar at 5, you don’t want to be the buzzkill who has to go do a second shift at the bar. That’s not what stellar recommendations are made of. Ambitious entry-level workers of all kinds try to cultivate a sense of their commitment and availability because that’s what employers want, but that’s not compatible with working a whole other job. Even if that other job is the only thing that makes the internship possible.

In some ways, it’s not in anyone’s individual interest to talk about intern moonlighting. Interns don’t benefit from being seen as low-wage workers, their co-workers don’t need to think about the people who get them coffee serving coffee somewhere else for money, and employers enjoy the free or desperation-priced labor. Everyone wins, or at least derives some benefit. And that sounds fair. “This is the schedule I want,” Peacock told the Times. Given his options, it’s hard to blame him.

To paraphrase Karl Marx, interns don’t make their choices under circumstances of their own choosing. If Peacock were paid a living wage by the Congress of American Indians, it’s possible he’d still work at the hotel to save up some extra cash, but his incentive structure — and the incentive structures of a lot of other people like him — would be drastically changed. And if a bunch of interns suddenly had a reduced incentive to work, that would mean the bars and hotels out there would face a tougher labor market and probably have to raise wages. Not a win-win, but a win for workers.

There’s only one solution to the intern problem, and it’s to end internships. This special labor relationship that affects up to a million mostly young, mostly women workers isn’t worth saving. Trying to paper over the issue with policy like the (as yet unpassed) “Unpaid Intern Protection Act of 2015,” which would extend anti-harassment and anti-discrimination protections, is not a good solution. In the American workplace, we associate someone’s worth with their pay in a pretty direct manner, and we can’t legislate anyone into valuing employees whom the law doesn’t require them to compensate.

After a primary fight, the Bernie-fied Democratic Party platform now calls for a federal increase that would raise the hourly minimum wage to $15. If it were enacted and enforced, the policy would affect millions of workers, and extending it to unpaid interns would be a significant amplifier. The Department of Labor already has the necessary tools at its disposal, and a few places where they could exercise leverage. Take one or two fancy universities or big corporations out to the woodshed for credentialing exploitative internships and I bet the rest get in line. With Hillary Clinton’s campaign looking to engage disaffected young Democrats, this could be a good way. It’s a youth issue, a gender issue, and a labor issue.

Unfortunately, Clinton is not going to lead the wages-for-interns fight. That would probably require her to actually pay her own interns, which she does not do. Bernie Sanders did pay, but the Sanders campaign’s $12-an-hour wage was under the $15 that he wedged into the platform. It would take a major reversal of enforcement policy for the Department of Labor to start cracking down, especially on the White House. I would say unpaid interns have no choice but to organize, but they’re not allowed to do that either.