Thursday, October 24th, 2013

The End Of Interns

Our government runs on unpaid internships. During the recent shutdown, as many federal staff members were laid off, unpaid interns filled in the gap. Although considered volunteers, they were doing the work of a five or six figure salary just for the heck of it. That exciting opportunity to work for free may sound appealing to eager college graduates wanting to climb up the career ladder, pad their resume, and avoid working at the local plastic flower factory, but from a labor perspective it’s abominable. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be paid. If the government can’t pay the people it takes to run the government, then there is little recourse to stop the rest of the country from passing on their work to unpaid interns.

And that transformation has already been taking place. Craigslist job postings are filled with opportunities to "work for exposure." Online logo competitions offer graphic designers the chance to give their work away for peanuts, but only if they win. Even the foundations of wealthy COOs who write books about "Leaning In" try to take advantage of their stature by manipulating the desperate into working for free. Not only are the jobs not paid, but sometimes the employee pays the employer for the right to work. Internship placements are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Colleges pay companies to accept the free labor of their students in exchange for course credit.

Intern Nation, from Verso Books, is available wherever one desires to obtain books.

McNally Jackson



Your local bookstore

Also, Intern Labor Rights will be hosting a panel called "Breaking Down The Intern Economy" at Housing Works on October 29th.

Technically, most unpaid internships are illegal. Their legality hinges on whether the intern or the workplace benefits from the internship and whether interns do the work of regular employees. Many legal internships would be considered entry-level positions or apprenticeships if such things existed anymore. In reality, the word “internship” really has no definition since it can mean anything from unpaid to paid work, entry level to advanced, short-term to long-term stints, or prisoners of war in an internment camp. While unpaid internships were once an assumed stepping stone to working in media, that is quickly changing. After interns recently filed suit for back pay, Condé Nast has now eliminated its internship program altogether and other media organizations are reforming or eliminating their internship programs as well.

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation is a comprehensive analysis into why unpaid internships are a slow degradation of almost every labor standard that the country has come to accept. Published last spring, he was way ahead of the coming changes in the world of internships. He graciously talked to me about the world of unpaid labor.

In short, what is wrong with the practice of offering unpaid internships?

Two basic things. First, work should be paid for, that's a basic ethic in our society. When that doesn't happen, you have a race to the bottom, you undermine the whole labor market, and ultimately everyone but the top 1% are worse off. Second, unpaid internships create a pay-to-play system since only some people can afford to work for zero dollars for longer than a week or two. This ultimately exacerbates social inequality because key professions get filled up with people from privileged backgrounds; it not only affects who gets ahead and does well, it also plays a big role in terms of the voices we hear in the media, politics, arts, etc.

In your book, you point out that Disney uses interns on the cheap. Especially for a company that could easily afford to pay decent wages, why do people accept this?

I do talk in Intern Nation about the infamous "Disney College Program,” which brings 6,000 to 7,000 young people to Disney World each year for minimum wage "internships,” requires them to live in overpriced company housing, teaches them next to nothing and so on—principally as a way to have a revolving door of cheap, cheerful labor. It's one of the largest internship programs in the world, and colleges literally race to funnel people in. Disney does manage to save tens of millions in wages as a result of the program. As for why people do them, mainly because schools encourage them and because it sounds fun, I guess, and perhaps it can be fun if you're a Disney fanatic. As for earning a living, forget it. As for what this means in terms of Disney World being a safer, more well-run amusement park run by experienced people–again, forget it.

After the suit against Fox Searchlight, the production company behind Black Swan, unpaid internships have gotten more attention. Have you heard of any new egregious examples of unpaid interns?

More than 20 lawsuits have been filed by unpaid interns over the past two years, and this may be just the beginning. Cases where interns may have been sexually harassed but aren't allowed to get justice are particularly galling—the recent Phoenix TV case is a prime example, demonstrating that unpaid interns also fall into a kind of legal limbo when it comes to workplace rights.

Do you see any possibility for reform?

I think that the recent lawsuits, organizing efforts like Intern Labor Rights and the Fair Pay Campaign, changing policies at companies and colleges, and the serious recent media interest in the topic all offer grounds for hope—all this has happened since Intern Nation came out. But for now lots of people are still literally paying their colleges to go work unpaid off campus, feeling they have no other choice, which is sheer madness. I don't think the government will really start enforcing the law until people demand it. And interns have to do more than just vote with their feet–they have to organize and speak up and help end the practice of unpaid internships in the near future. They basically didn't exist 30, 40 years ago and hopefully in another 30 years they'll just be a distant memory. I think people are just starting to wake up.

Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and programmer whose work appears in The Atlantic Cities, The LA Review of Books and The Morning News. Photo by Travis Isaacs.

10 Comments / Post A Comment

Kate Baum@facebook (#194,044)

I completed two Disney internships and had great experiences. We were paid – minimum wage but we had enough to get by, and the cost of housing MORE than covered the apartment and amenities, considering everything except food was included. My second professional internship was more competitive, paid much better (I think it was in the $12-15/hr range) and when I moved back to my home state of Maine, I literally had a CEO create a temporary marketing position in his company simply because Disney was on my resume – no lie. I also learned SO MUCH about the company and how much they do "right" in the (business) world. I now work in higher ed and urge students to consider the Disney College Program and Professional Internships.

EllieK (#232,619)

@Kate Baum@facebook
At Disney, you were paid. Your housing was inclusive of utilities and more. You had a summer job that was no worse, probably better, than working at the mall or as a receptionist. Those were my summer jobs when I was in college.

I don't understand why this article gives so much coverage to Disney, given the fact that there are many, 100% UNPAID internships! There is the REAL problem. Some of them are at the graduate student level, so they require a bachelor's degree and prior full-time work experience. Again, that is very bad, exploitative, but it is not what Disney does.

Kate Baum@facebook (#194,044)

@EllieK I agree – that's what was so strange about this article – that they want to skewer unpaid internships (as they should be skewered) but instead focus on Disney, which is actually doing something right.

Kate Baum@facebook (#194,044)

I still can't wrap my brain around the "teaches them next to nothing" in the Disney College Program paragraph. I literally got the entire foundation of my career from the DCP – as did quite a few of my friends who have either stayed on and still work for the company (in Florida and a couple who are now working in California) or returned home to good careers. Then again, we were students who took classes (not for credit; I'd graduated), networked and learned as much about the business as we could.

EllieK (#232,619)

I am really appalled that the U.S. government uses unpaid interns on a regular basis. I agree with the opening lines of the article, that they should not have done it during the recent shutdown. But I have also read that high level members of the Senate, specifically, Nancy Pelosi, chooses not to pay some of the interns on her staff. What is up with THAT! Maybe I am wrong; I hope so!

Instead of shoveling out all that money to education tech companies owned and run by already wealthy people ("incentivizing" to be job creators, you know how that saying goes) and of course, the vast sums given to Homeland Security and immigration legislation debates, pay interns who are working for the government at least minimum wage! No, more than minimum wage, if they have to pay for their housing and transportation while working in Washington D.C.

This is what will happen if government interns aren't paid enough to live on: The only interns will be children of the very, very wealthy, as no one else's children will be able to afford to work and live in D.C. without compensation. Our progressive liberal Democrats should NOT be so unfriendly to labor and college students. Nor should they need me to point this out! I am certain that they realize the consequences.

Oh, and here's another one to watch out for: Those "contests" or competitions for machine learning and data scientists that Kaggle and Yelp and Amazon offer. They might have been a chance to get recognition and visibility initially. Now, they seem to mostly exploit students and unemployed or underpaid quantitative analysts of all nations, whether Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, UK, Italy, Nigeria, Australia, Romania or the USA. It is unpaid labor without receiving anything in return. These companies prey on desperation while maintaining a superficially egalitarian, inclusive persona.

@EllieK It's not just the government. Go into the DC offices of pretty much any left of center non-profit advocacy group you can name. In fact, especially the ones you can name. They're filled with a small army of unpaid interns "professional volunteers", most of whom are trustfunders doing something 'fulfilling' with their lives. Some smaller groups really couldn't make it without the help, but many are well-funded, paying their execs healthy salaries. The congressman's wife who runs the NGO on House of Cards? Yeah, that whole situation is the most realistic part of the show.
And what does that really mean? Well, it means you can have rural poverty 'experts' who've never set foot in a WalMart who can't understand why someone living in poverty 100 miles from the nearest city doesn't just become an artisan organic farmer and sell at a local farmers market. It means young women working at major national feminist organizations being told that if they can't swing rent, they should just ask their fathers for money. Those aren't strawmen – I've actually encountered both situations.

18342768@twitter (#250,962)

Unpaid internships suck. Strangers With Candy references rule.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

Maybe Choire can get an Awl intern to redact from their pages all inappropriate usages of "literally."

My "externships" in law school were far from exploitative. That were terrific. This will not end– it shod be expanded.

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