Unpaid Internships are Unethical and Marginalize Low-Income Students
Imagine you’re a new senior in college, and it’s time to get an internship. Your parents pay for your education, meals, housing and car. Your parents have steady, well-paying jobs, own their house, have 401k’s and don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or how they’re going to pay for medical bills if something were to happen to them, you or one of your siblings. For you, working 10–20 hours a week for free, isn’t an issue. Your parents are there to support you and put you through college, so it isn’t a big deal, right? Everyone has to do unpaid work in order to “make it.”
Now imagine you’re another college student who’s also getting ready for an internship. Except in this situation, your parents cannot afford to pay for your education. You spend hours every semester looking for the next grant or scholarship you can apply for. You spend your nights and weekends not only studying, but also working minimum wage jobs to afford your textbooks and supplies. Your parents don’t own their home, they don’t have 401k’s, and they’re constantly worried about their next meal or money for an emergency. Spending 10–20 hours a week for no monetary compensation (and often no class credit) is a huge sacrifice you’d have to make. That means either less time working to be able to afford college and its expenses, or less time studying for your exams and projects.
This is the type of situation unpaid internships create; they require a certain amount of privilege that most students do not have. Put simply, they’re classist.
“If you don’t want to do an unpaid internship, then don’t do one!”
That’s not the point. This isn’t a question of doing one or not; many students don’t even have a choice. This is about understanding why unpaid internships are unethical and do not benefit the student or recent graduate as much as they benefit the company getting free labor.
And, many lawsuits have resulted of this.
In June of 2013, a judge ruled in favor of unpaid interns against Fox Searchlight Pictures. (Greenhouse, The New York Times). About a year after that in October of 2014, NBCUniversal settled a lawsuit against unpaid interns of Saturday Night Live and other shows for $6.4 million (Miller, The LA Times). In January of 2015, former interns sued Rolling Stone and CBS Corp claiming labor violations (Vehling, Law360).