Unpaid internships have become a bastion of the American labor market. Why are they important? They serve as a primary means of getting a proverbial “foot in the door.” When hiring, a broad array of industries place more emphasis on real-world experience than internal college accomplishments or activities. To employers, internships are the holy grail of any resume. They demonstrate that the candidate has worked in the field and will be an asset immediately once hired.
Because of their importance in today’s job market, unpaid internships are wielded by the wealthy and privileged in order to hoard opportunities. There are multiple levels to this; first, unpaid internships are fundamentally unaffordable to students who come from low income (and low wealth) backgrounds. In order to survive an unpaid internship, students must pay for their room and board out of pocket. When we consider that many of the most prestigious internships are located in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C. or New York, where living for a summer costs thousands of dollars, this problem is particularly pronounced. In this context, it makes sense that a low income student would choose to live at home over the summer and work at a minimum wage job. This also provides a key distinction between unpaid internships and the apprenticeship model, which are often faultily compared. Apprentices have their living expenses covered, whereas unpaid interns are forced to spend money on said living expenses in order to work.
Second, the privileges of status and professional relationships provide greater access to opportunities for those members of society who already reside in the upper echelon of wealth. Connections and favors can be used in order to secure prestigious internships. Consolidating opportunity in this way rewards status over merit.
The politics and journalism industries in particular have high barriers to entry based on level of experience. Generally, this means a student or recent graduate must be able to support themselves during a long period of unpaid labor, which is not possible for people from low income backgrounds. It is no surprise that people of color, who on average have less familial wealth and connections, are underrepresented in Congress. Likewise, people of color who major in journalism are significantly less likely to find jobs after graduation, in large part due to the employer’s expectation that they will have completed multiple unpaid internships. These are two of the most crucial sectors in American public life. Unsurprisingly, they contain mechanisms, like the unpaid internship, which systematically shut out people of color and people from low income backgrounds.
Even if we disregard the socioeconomic barriers which unpaid internships construct, they are still unethical and exploitative at their core. By law, unpaid interns cannot be treated as regular employees who perform regular functions for a company. An environment must be created for the intern that is educational and simulates educational training. If these sound like criteria which unpaid internships do not meet, it is because they often do not. In a 2013 New York District Court ruling on Fox Searchlight’s treatment of unpaid interns, the judge explained how federal labor standards were violated; “They (the interns) worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training.”
This is not an unusual occurrence. Anyone who has interacted with an unpaid internship knows that work is often menial and non educational. As a rule, free labor in any context deserves to be scrutinized; in this context, it deserves to be condemned.
The unfortunate realities of capitalism are exemplified by unpaid internships: social mobility is severely restrained, opportunity and wealth is consolidated at the top of society, and labor is consistently exploited. Unpaid internships must be recognized as an unethical and unfair tool of the wealthy and privileged. Make unpaid internships illegal, and we will take a step in the direction of equal opportunity.
Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.