Mar 11, 2014
It’s Just Business: How Corporate America Made Slaves of the Young
Posted on Aug 9, 2012
Some might say I’ve been overly critical of the author of the Forbes article, Kate Harrison. After all, she does urge organizations to pay their interns. However, her article slyly perpetuates the idea that there’s a free lunch for companies. She calls interns the “best task force money can’t buy,” suggests that employers hire interns for second, out-of-office jobs like baby-sitting, and pitches interns as cheap guinea pigs, saying they “can allow you to test new ideas or programs at little or no cost.” In pushing its pro-business agenda, Forbes descends into hypocrisy.
The reason I have singled out the Forbes article is because the negative attitudes it has toward interns are not isolated. Many businesses share Harrison’s cost-minimizing approach, along with a casual willingness to ignore state and federal law.
Larger businesses, like NBA teams that have public relations interns, in most cases can afford to pay a few interns and thereby avoid the risk of public censure that might come from being sued over unpaid internships.
Aware of that risk, many businesses at least make some attempt to meet the criteria for an unpaid internship. Usually, this consists of requiring an in-college intern to register for academic credit at the intern’s college or university. Many graduate programs require internships as part of routine coursework, and undergraduates can earn course credits through an independent study or a special internship class. Sixty percent of students report that their schools require internships for graduation, according to InternBridge.com. Awarding and institutionalizing academic credit as compensation for unpaid work acts as a seal of approval from colleges and universities that fosters the erroneous belief that academic credit alone satisfies the Labor Department’s requirements and ensures that the internship is educational.
Despite a 2010 letter to the U.S. Labor Department from 13 college and university presidents claiming that “our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education,” accountability for and enforcement of educational working conditions still vary greatly within and between schools. The letter urged Labor Department officials to ease regulations on unpaid internships, promising that schools could ensure the educational value of internships themselves.
UCLA’s Tilly points out that many schools are decentralized, meaning individual departments that issue the academic credits for internships have their own processes for ensuring that the positions are educational. Interns might write papers, submit reports, give presentations or do nothing whatsoever that could be evaluated, and their evaluators could be either department heads or graduate students, depending on the institution. Given the variations in quality of evaluation, neither employers nor colleges and universities can rightly claim that awarding academic credit accurately reflects educational value in an internship.
Besides concerns about misrepresentations of the value of academic credit, there are strong societal and economic forces at work here. If wages represent the value of an employee’s work, an unpaid intern has no economic value. However, interns clearly are valuable to companies, illustrating an inconsistency in the market for workers derived from an intern’s lack of bargaining power. Internships demonstrate to employers a willingness to work for free, devaluing interns’ work for both the workers and potential future employers. If the résumé of a recent graduate is full of unpaid work, he or she well might be hired only for more unpaid internships or, if a real job is landed, be underpaid.
Only the well-off can afford to work without pay for two years after graduating, or for that matter during college summer breaks, and this bars even middle-class graduates from competing in job markets that look to internship experience. Such fundamental inequities in access worsen an already unfair system of wage denial.
However, interns can take heart; there are a variety of solutions available to them.
First among these is building awareness of interns’ legal status among colleges, employers and the interns themselves. If every student knew that many unpaid internships are illegal, students would have less fear that others would work for free if they themselves refused to do so. If businesses continued to participate in illegal unpaid internships, colleges and student groups could join forces to protect interns. Unpaid interns, made aware of their disenfranchisement, could organize, or join with existing labor groups such as the SEIU. (After all, wasn’t the labor movement’s primary goal fair wages and benefits for abused workers?)
Actual enforcement by state and federal governments would build awareness of interns’ rights as well. Jose Millan, former California labor commissioner, noted in a phone interview for this article that “any time there’s a scarcity of resources on a governmental level, it behooves [federal and state agencies] to pool resources and take on high-profile cases and publicize them.” The current method of enforcement based on individual complaints, he said, is ineffective because it is underfunded. Although prosecuting every case would be an overwhelming task, taking a few major cases and making examples of them would scare companies into compliance. Once most companies follow labor laws, a complaint system becomes workable.
It is a testament to moral blindness in our economic structure that companies can tell young workers they won’t be able to find work without a résumé built around what amounts to slave labor. The abuse of unpaid workers will continue until the government decides to enforce its own laws, or interns collectively realize the truth about their servitude and decide to take action—by organizing, by suing or by boycotting employers. Otherwise, improper unpaid internships will continue to the detriment of interns, schools and the entire country.
Ms. Harrison and Forbes, both complicit in this de facto serfdom, should own up to the sad reality they have helped perpetuate. Better yet, they should call for actions to remedy the problem and properly reward the interns so many companies depend on.
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