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.
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.