Unpaid Internships are the New Slave Labor

It’s getting to be that time of year again. Thousands of college students are joining the mad dash for that coveted prize of academic life: The Internship. According to Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, one million students intern each year, and between half and one third of them receive no pay. It’s no secret that as the economy has floundered and jobless rates have soared, especially among recent college graduates. To top it all off, thousands of grads are staggering under massive student loan debt and so can hardly afford to work for free.

It seems that, to a large extent, internships are part and parcel of a bad economy. Why pay employees, if you can get bright-eyed college students who are willing to do the work for nothing? As the economy slowly recovers, however, more eager young people are starting to take a stand. Last May, Christina Isnardi, a sophomore at NYU, gathered more than 1,000 signatures when she petitioned the school’s career center to remove unpaid internships from their job posting site. This February, NYU finally tightened its guidelines and agreed to remove all illegal unpaid internships.

Federal Internship Regulations

The US Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71 regulates the pay and working conditions of interns. If positions do not offer pay, interns must be under the direct supervision of an actual employee and must receive training similar to what they could obtain in an academic setting. As the Test for Unpaid Interns states, “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.”

Isnardi’s petition has raised public awareness that companies do, in fact, have legal responsibilities to their interns. Former interns have waged a string of lawsuits against big-name companies such as Fox Searchlight, Conde Nast, Hearst Magazines, and NBCUniversal, among others. Last June, a federal judge struck a blow for big internship companies when he ruled in favor of two unpaid interns who worked on Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan. The two young people performed basic administrative duties such as filing papers and making photocopies – without pay. The judge ruled that the two interns received little educational benefit and, thus, under US and New York minimum wage laws, should have been paid.

The Best and Worst Industries for Internships

Unsurprisingly, the arts, typically underfunded and financially troubled, most frequently offer questionable unpaid internships. With the digital revolution, traditional paper media outlets such as magazines and newspapers are also trying to boost their ranks with unpaid workers. Other industries, such as fashion and music, which are notoriously difficult to break into, offer unpaid internships as well. It’s a situation of supply and demand; jobs are few, and educated, eager workers are so abundant that they are willing to work for free in the hopes of landing a job sometime in the future.

Of course, not all internships are a raw deal; paid internships can provide valuable experience, contacts – and money. However, these internships are unlikely to be in the glamorous fields of art, entertainment, or fashion. Glassdoor recently released a list of the top 25 Internships for 2014. (Not surprisingly, many companies on this list overlapped with those that made it onto Glassdoor’s list of top companies to work.) For the first time, Facebook ousted Google from the top position. Most of the companies in the Top 10 were tech companies, with a few oil and gas corporations, such as Schlumberger and ExxonMobil thrown in for good measure.

What’s Next?

As the economy continues its slow recovery, internships are in for a change. Will unpaid internships ever be completely eliminated? Frankly, it doesn’t seem likely. At least not until the economy improves and young adults actually have genuine employment options again. Still, public awareness is increasing and internship coordinators will face greater responsibility for legal violations of Fact Sheet #71 and minimum wage laws. As the tech boom continues, we may see a decline of artistic internships and an increase in technological, scientific, and social media positions. However, since these are the internships that teach young entrepreneurs, provide future employment opportunities, and provide an actual wage, perhaps that isn’t quite as awful.

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