Internships may be just another word for exploitation, Labor Dept. says

A New York Times report that the Labor Department is cracking down on unpaid internships has generated a flood of comments on the Times web site and elsewhere – and no wonder.

College students and other young job seekers have experienced mounting pressure to take internships without pay, in hopes of getting a foot in the door to a real job. University career offices often promote these positions, in what some see as a cozy enabling relationship with employers.

For example, the Times reports, unpaid internships posted at Stanford University’s career office have tripled in the past two years, “fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience for their résumés.”

Others note that “unpaid internships are about all one can find” in job listings on the popular Craigslist web site.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, beefed up with increased funding and enforcement staff, says it is going after companies that do not pay interns according to the law.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the wage and hour division, told the Times.

While only 9 percent of graduating students had held internships in 1992, by 2006 that number was up to 83 percent, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. That represents at least 2.5 million student workers each year. Of those, it’s estimated that one-fourth to one-half are unpaid.

The EPI study, released April 5, is titled “Not-So-Equal Protection-Reforming the Regulation of Student Internships.”

It notes that internships are often beneficial for both students and employers. However, the report says, “Despite internships’ importance to the labor market as a crucial form of vocational training and pre-employment vetting, they are only loosely regulated through vague and outdated employment law. Moreover, these regulations go essentially unenforced.”

That lack of regulation and enforcement, the EPI says, “has fostered the growth of unpaid internships, which in turn limits participation to only the students who can afford to forego wages and pay for living expenses, effectively institutionalizing socioeconomic disparities.” As the Times article put it, unpaid internships favor “well-to-do and well-connected students, speeding their climb up the career ladder.”

Moreover, lack of regulation of internships “permits (and even incentivizes) the replacement of regular workers with unpaid college students and recent graduates,” the EPI report says. “The increasingly competitive labor market for college graduates, combined with the effects of the recession, has intensified the trend of replacing full-time workers with unpaid interns.”

Commenting on the Times site, one woman wrote: “When I was in college, many of my peers took full-time, 40+ hour a week, completely unpaid ‘internships’ for the entire summer. I enviously saw them toil in their chosen field for no money, while I was desperate to get any job I could that would pay my rent and bills, as I was responsible for ALL of my own costs in college – rent, food, bills, and tuition. … of course their connections through the glamorous world of unpaid internships got them much farther than my ‘real job” did.”

Another wrote, “Back in the eighties and nineties, exploitation of interns at magazines was disturbingly obvious. This young, mainly female population did lots of grunt work. … The less affluent can’t afford to intern and those that can put up with poor treatment. What do you learn from this experience? Too often for the successful intern it’s how to perpetuate low wages and disrespect for workers. Meanwhile, college graduates who didn’t intern or have other connections are out in the cold because unpaid interns are doing all the entry-level jobs!”

“I never had the chance to do an ‘unpaid’ internship,” labor activist Pat Crowley told this reporter. “Going to college meant paying to go to college which meant working full time.”

He added, “I’ve never really gotten the idea of working for free but it is easy to see how folks that do ‘unpaid’ internships later become people who expect other people to work for free.”

The Labor Department considers young workers among the most vulnerable to exploitation, including violation of wage and hours laws. On April 1 in Chicago, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis kicked off a new wage-theft protection campaign aimed at helping young workers as well as low-wage employees, immigrants (regardless of legal status), women in male-dominated professions, sub-contractors, and the disabled. The department says the “We Can Help” campaign will do outreach to those groups about worker rights and laws and how to get help in filing grievances.

In addition to stricter regulation and enforcement, the EPI report calls for reform of labor laws governing internships. For details, see the full report.

Photo: / CC BY 2.0


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.