Are Unpaid Internships Unethical?

By: Maria Ricks






Internships exist to give inexperienced workers a chance to have a short term job in their field of choice before applying as a salaried worker, often for educational purposes. Usually interns are college students or recent graduates. Sometimes internships will pay these workers an hourly rate or stipend. But typically interns are unpaid and instead work for college credit, to add work experience to their resume, for educational purposes, a letter of recommendation, a chance for a future paying job, networking or for a future reference. Internships are usually beneficial for the intern in that employers tend to take an applicant more seriously if they have had an internship in the past. Typically, internships will offer a job at the end of an internship, but it is not required of the employer. Employers are expected to benefit indirectly as well from the extra help in the workplace. However, the practice is highly controversial because it tends to favor the employer over the intern, laws concerning the practice are vague, oversight is limited, and can often be discriminatory to low income interns and female interns.

Although 60% of employers claim to take past internships into account when hiring this does not seem to be the case (ProPublica). the chances of someone who has had an internship in the past and someone who has not held an internship getting hired for a salaried position are almost identical with a 38.6% of being hired for someone who has never had an internship and a 39.5% chance of being hired with a past unpaid internship (NACE). Internships tend not give an accurate depiction of what a job will be like in fields as well because often time’s interns will be assigned busy work. While some fields do tend to pay interns such as  medical, law, and STEM fields, other fields are notorious for not paying and mistreating their interns such as  creative fields, digital communications, fashion, and design fields. For example, during the filming of the movie “Black Swan” interns found themselves doing custodial work, making coffee, and getting lunch for the cast and crew; without pay. Many claimed to have learned little to nothing from the experience and have since spoken publicly on the poor conditions (Penn Law Review).  Indeed, these practices  are borderline illegal according the Department of Labor because it does not fit the legal definition of an internship which contains six criteria point. A legal unpaid internship must: include tasks in actual operation of facilities while still focusing on training and education, be beneficial to the intern not just the employer, should not replace an otherwise paying position for another worker, employer must provide training in which they gain no immediate advantage in fact their operations should be slowed down in order to train the intern, the intern is not necessarily entitled for a job after the internship meaning an internship should not be a “tryout” for a job, and both the employer and intern understand and agree that the intern is not entitled to wages (Department of Labor). If an unpaid internship does not follow these guidelines, then it is illegal, however most unpaid internships do not follow these guidelines.

Further, unpaid internships are discriminatory against those who come from lower income backgrounds because unlike their wealthier counterparts, these workers cannot depend on others to pay for their living expenses and are forced to forego an internship or because they face a large amount of student debt that they need to pay off because they face crippling interest rates if they do not (Penn Law Review). Interns from wealthier backgrounds have another advantage, they are able to travel to another city for their internships, giving them a significant advantage especially in creative industries such as film where most jobs are either in Los Angeles or New York City (Penn Law Review). In some cases, the disparity is so extreme that a wealthier intern will have housing, travel, and expenses covered for them and hired a financial consultant to scout out the best internships for them (Penn Law Review). In a survey conducted by Leslie Regan Shade and Jenna Jacobson, almost all of the interns interviewed mentioned getting financial support from their parents, without specifically being asked (Shade). Obviously   students from lower income, without such privilege, cannot create a network or get experience in their field.

Unpaid interns are not protected by discrimination statutes in the workplace because they are not paid employees and therefore they are much more likely to face discrimination and harassment in the workplace. These statutes include the Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Discrimination in Employment Act (Penn Law Review). This lack of protection is especially harmful to women because it leaves them open to sexual harassment. Bridget O’Connor was an unpaid intern at a hospital for the mentally disabled; during her time at the internship she found herself berated because she was the lowest ranking team member in the workplace. Her supervisor would repeatedly refer to O’Connor as “Miss Sexual Harassment” and make crude sexual comments toward her on a daily basis. On one occasion he even suggested an orgy between her and other female coworkers at the hospital. On another he asked her to remove her clothes before a meeting (Penn Law Review). O’Connor could not leave the internship because it would hurt her in future employment endeavors and because her lawsuit would be dismissed due to her unpaid status.

Women are also more likely to fall victim to internships that do not fit the criteria since they are often given internships that normally would be a paying position in the field, and this is often the case in project based digital communications or in online journalism (Shade).  Women are also more likely to be bullied into accepting and staying with an internship because they are more afraid of confronting their employer (Shade). Further, most fields that have unpaid internships by default tend to be fields women lean towards or are female dominated.

However not all unpaid internships treat employees unfairly and can be mutually beneficial for the intern and employer.  For example, students can use internships to save them money on their college courses, because colleges often allow for internships to fulfill credit needs and replace courses, saving up to thousands of dollars for the students. Approximately 90% of colleges offer internship for credit programs (ProPublica). Government internships, while often unpaid, do offer valuable experiences in the field and give a student an accurate depiction of the career, creating lifelong connections.  Further, these positions tend to focus on education, have strict guidelines for participation, and although a position is not guarantee, often times interns will be offered a paying position after their internship within a year of when their internship ended (Daily Cardinal). It should be noted that these types of unpaid internships are highly competitive and depend heavily on career fields.

Unpaid internships and the flaws that come with unpaid internships exist partially because of the US legal system. In fact, there has been an exponential increase in unpaid internships, in 1992 only 17% of graduating students had an internship to in 2008 over 50% of graduating students have had an internship, it is estimated that about one-fourth to one-half of these internships were unpaid (Shade).  This normalization of internships has even led to students taking on multiple internships before graduation and staying on a longer term basis with their internships, up to two years (Shade). Even highschoolers have begun to take on unpaid internships. Earlier the 6 criteria guideline for legal internships was mentioned,  and as one might have noticed, the language is rather vague.  Mixed  with the little oversight  afforded by the Department of Labor,  it very easy to violate intern’s rights (Penn Law Review).  Further, the Department of Labor does not launch its own investigations into unfair internships,  rather the intern must file a complaint first (Shade). Due to lack of education on internships, interns often have no clue on what their rights are even though the duty falls on them to protect themselves. Companies do not even have disclose what the guidelines are  for a legal internship (Penn Law Review).

There are many possible solutions to this problem, much seem small but are more complex than they seem. The simplest is to make it clear with interns what their rights are and how to go about defending themselves in a workplace setting. However, there are no answers as to who should provide the potential intern with this information: the college, the employers, or the Department of Labor. Another solution could be to tighten up current loopholes in the Department of Labor’s guidelines for unpaid internships. This can be done by defining what is meant by an ‘educational experience’ or by keeping a closer watch on all documented internships. The most extreme, but possibly necessary solution, would be to make unpaid internships illegal. However outright banning the practice could lead into a decrease of internships because many businesses cannot afford to keep multiple paid interns (Forbes). Canada, however, has made unpaid internships illegal and the penalties are similar to that of hiring an illegal immigrant. The law has been rather effective except that companies have begun to have under the table internships.

In conclusion, although unpaid internships can be mutually beneficial for the employer and intern this is often not the case. The practice is highly problematic legally and laws are often broken and due to lack of oversight there has been an increase in the number of illegal unpaid internships. Unpaid internships are often discriminatory in practice and leave interns unprotected legally. There are many solutions to this problem ranging from education to outright banning the practice. However, the increase use of interns shows that this ethical problem is not going away anytime soon.

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