In Response to a Defense of Unpaid Internships

I just saw an editor-featured piece in defense of unpaid internships at Gawker and in general. While it has good spelling and grammar, it addresses none of the criticisms of unpaid internships directly, and worse yet contains no reference to the ethics or the law surrounding unpaid internships. I’m completely willing to grant that most unpaid internships (depending on the industry) can leave the interns with vast experience that will land them well-paying jobs in the future, though this isn’t necessarily true. There are 3 main arguments against unpaid internships that I’ve seen: social justice, ethical, and legal.

The social effects of unpaid internships are what’s been cited the most by social justice critics. The only people who can live on an unpaid internship are necessarily the ones who have external means of some kind. Hardship filters people out in a way that isn’t based on merit, and results in skewing the collective hiring pools of entire industries. This leaves out the children of poorer folks (and thus disproportionately persons of color). Of course, people who have family within commute distance or a stable relationship with someone who already has a stable job that can at least support 2 people on ramen noodles for another year can still be poor and work unpaid internships, but we’re talking about the aggregate effects here. That filter doesn’t apply so much as you walk up the income scale. While it isn’t much, minimum wage can very much help someone make it through a year that would otherwise be without income.

The ethics of unpaid internships are much clearer to me and is a much simpler argument. To make a profit while not paying someone is simply exploitative. If an intern is just observing a mentor, and practicing their art, and the work product goes unused, then that’s really just free job training. But if the work being produced contributes in some justified way to the profit of the organization, then in almost any worthwhile system of business ethics, that individual should be paid for their efforts. The benefit of job experience is not due compensation if there are alterior motives conditional to the intern’s hire, including job performance.

The legality of unpaid internships is based on the ethics case above, and is even clearer than the ethics. Here are the “tests” to see if you should be paying your intern from the Department of Labor:

  1. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  2. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  3. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  4. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  5. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

All of these tests must be met. Not one, not most, but all. And that’s the law. It’s #2 and #3 that are violated the most. Basically, if the intern didn’t do it, would you have to hire a replacement?

If you don’t like the law, you should lobby to change it, but there are no exceptions to the law per industry. Industry norms are enforced by extra-legal retribution: don’t snitch that the work you did showed direct profit to the company, otherwise you’ll never get work in this town again. What does it say about the state of these many industries that they must use the social pressure of future job prospects to limit the rights to legal redress for the most vulnerable in their profession?

I applaud the former Gawker unpaid interns on accessing their legal rights to recover what is theirs under law: back-pay at minimum wage rates. I find that perfectly acceptable under law, ethics, and social justice. Now, what’s the problem with that?

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