Unpaid Internships: A Curse in Disguise

Washington, D.C., U.S.A. — Last week NYU Washington, D.C. student Alex reluctantly resigned from her internship. “This wasn't a decision I took ...

Sep 20, 2014

Washington, D.C., U.S.A. — Last week NYU Washington, D.C. student Alex reluctantly resigned from her internship.
“This wasn't a decision I took lightly,” Alex, not her real name, writes, “nor something I ever expected I would be able to do.” After two weeks of classes, however, and a relentless full time schedule that included one Thursday where she was pressured to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Alex felt unhappy. Her prestigious internship assigned tasks like data entry, answering phone calls and operating client management systems that were less learning-oriented and more production-oriented. Above all, Alex was not receiving any compensation for her work. Upon resigning, Alex was called "highly unprofessional" and was advised that if she made a commitment in the future, she should stick to it.
It is estimated that there are over half a million unpaid internships in the United States, with many of the most esteemed offered by D.C.’s think tanks, government departments and congressional offices. Not all of these internships are exploitative and often they can be essential for a student’s professional growth. However, stories of overworked and under-respected interns are far from unusual. They are so endemic, in fact, that they have become a rite of passage. Most interns and professionals in D.C. see unpaid internships as a sort of freshman pledge to gain entry to the exclusive government fraternity. Indeed, many of the powerful people that work in D.C. were once interns themselves and will only hire someone full time after they’ve paid their dues in grunt work. This partial system is particularly difficult to dismantle as both Democrats and Republicans share incentives to keep it the way it is. As the mid-term elections approach in November, both parties will be visiting as many college campuses as they can to recruit idealistic and passionate Political Science students to work on their campaigns.
Defenders of the current arrangement argue that unpaid internships build character and humility, or claim that interns receive more than enough compensation for their work in the form of references and contacts. Firstly, I would posit that unpaid internships consistently hack away at the idealism and passion that are so vital to make political change. Why would a talented and intelligent twenty-something photocopy papers all day for no pay when they could earn $7000 a month as an intern in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street? Additionally, the concept of paying interns in references is equivalent to going to a restaurant and paying the chef in compliments. There is nothing stopping your manager from simply refusing to give you a reference at the completion of your work. This is not fair, especially when interns often perform the same tasks as a paid employee.
The real problem with the culture of unpaid internships however is the effect it has on those who cannot afford to participate in them. Anyone that cannot afford accommodation, food and transportation in one of the most expensive cities in the world is unlikely to ever be able to afford an unpaid internship in D.C.. Consequently, they are unlikely to ever get a job in the federal political system. David Dennis in a 2011 article for the Guardian discussed how underprivileged voices are being excluded from the field of journalism because students from underprivileged backgrounds cannot afford to work all summer as an unpaid intern in New York. The same phenomenon is occurring in the political system in D.C.. The ramifications of this on democracy are profound and persistent. It is no surprise that over half of the representatives in Congress are millionaires.
In mid-2013 two student interns, who had worked on the film Black Swan sued their employers who had not paid them. The judge deemed that they should have at least received minimum wage. They won their case because their unpaid internship did not satisfy six criteria that all unpaid internships in the for-profit sector must abide by to be legally sanctioned. Sadly, these criteria do not apply for those working in the non-profit sector, including the government. Often, interns in the non-profit sector are not even afforded basic rights such as those against sexual harassment. Congress, for example, has exempted its own interns from the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The solution to this problem is simple — require all non-profits to pay their interns. Sure, this may lead to less internships overall for students but it will lead to thousands of more entry-level jobs for those that have already graduated, which is a huge bonus in such a saturated job market. It will also help paint a much more realistic picture of the job market in the non-profit sector where there is typically not very much demand for workers.
In order to get to this stage, deep and lasting changes need to be made. It is not realistic to expect interns to recognize when they’re being mistreated, as, for many of them, it is their first experience of professional life. Therefore, it is imperative that universities play an integral role in ensuring that their student’s internship experiences are valuable. This means preventing companies with unpaid internships from recruiting on campus — NYU students recently petitioned the administration to stop advertising unpaid internships on campus. Universities should also encourage their students to resign when their needs are not being met. Lastly offices that take advantage of their interns need to be named and shamed.
In the meantime, more attention needs to be brought to this issue through the media, labor unions and protests on the street. In the future, we will look back on the way we treated unpaid interns with embarrassment and confusion. Until then however, many of us not as courageous as Alex will endure semester- or summer-long unpaid internships because they are branded as not just expectation but a privilege.
Daniel Brown is a contributing writer. Email him at
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