Unpaid Internships: Exposure for the Privileged

Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

Unpaid internships are a luxury.

I say this because I have had my fair share of unpaid internships, most notably through organizations in which I would never have been able to obtain a paid one. Each internship has marketed the words “exposure” and “experience” in ways that produce images of unobstructed upward mobility.

Yet these images are only illusions. Unpaid internships are, in reality, classist constructions designed to benefit those who have the time and money to gain “experience.”

In other words, unpaid internships are exploitative. And for those who cannot afford to work without pay — particularly members of marginalized minority groups — unpaid internships create barriers for the underprivileged.

When the amount of “experience” determines one’s career prospects, those who do not have the opportunity to work as an unpaid intern are left at a permanent starting point.

Of course, there are organizations that cannot feasibly pay their workers, much less their interns. These organizations often demand less time and commitment from their interns, which is reasonable. In these cases, unpaid interns are seen as volunteers.

However, the organizations that have the financial resources to pay their interns and choose not to while demanding the same time commitment they would of a regular worker need to re-evaluate their conformity to labor standards.

In fact, there is strong evidence that many of the unpaid internships currently offered are illegal according to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

According to the act, unpaid internships must primarily work “for the benefit of the intern,” must derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s work and must be similar to an educational environment.

Yet in many cases, unpaid interns end up doing the “grunt work” that no worker does, essentially becoming free labor for the organization — nothing like an “educational” environment, and nothing that measures up to the marketed benefits of the job. I experienced this firsthand in an earlier unpaid internship experience.

With a 15-hour time commitment per week, the position was presented as a “Digital Media and Communications” exposure opportunity. Instead, I found myself sorting the kitchen’s silverware and towels, a job that I was told no employee had the time for.

I had expected to obtain the exposure outlined in my job description. Yet it seemed like the organization was benefiting more from my presence than I was from theirs.

Although unpaid internships advertise themselves as opportunities that can pave the way to higher-level careers, these advertisements often ignore the fact that they further exacerbate the class divide.

By choosing to favor those who are already economically privileged enough to prioritize “experience” more than necessities, unpaid internships exclude low-income individuals from these careers. And this only widens the economic gap, creating a gate that bars those born without privilege from getting in.

From its inherently ageist nature — young professionals are the ones that are seen as needing experience — to its racist implications in the prevention of access for minorities, the unpaid internship is one that has taken its own hold in a declining American economy.

In order for real change to happen regarding unpaid internships, it is necessary to examine the roles of those privileged enough to take them. As a member of this group, I believe that until we stop engaging in work that unfairly assesses us, we will never be able to break down those institutional barriers for others.

As long as unpaid internships continue to reach its audience, they will continue to be offered. We need to actively call out companies violating labor standards. We need to hear young workers who are speaking out about being exploited. And we need to start valuing ourselves more — enough to stop taking jobs that do exactly the opposite.