Ending Unpaid Internships

Posted in News by Nathan Lee Bush on May 23, 2011

Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor has a post linking to an article on a court victory in the UK, awarding a woman for six weeks of back pay for services rendered under the guise of the shamefully common practice in the creative and media industries: the unpaid internship.

The laissez-faire argument goes, that if people are willing to work for free to gain experience, by all means let them. Except for those pesky little things called labor laws. The fact is that we have certain protections that are being systemically skirted by this loophole. Employers are exempted from paying workers, if they are providing them hands-on training and without a profit motive. But few internships live up to this billing, as I can attest through personal experience.

I’ve had three internship experiences, two of which I would describe as illegal and exploitative, while the other was both ethically and legally laudatory. In the positive case, I was working for the architecture firm, Robert A.M. Stern, in the graphics department. I was paid a $15 an hour salary (quite good for a fresh graduate), in addition to full-benefits. I had direct hands-on training for six months with the Graphics Manager, learning color management, scanning techniques, as well as the full suite of Adobe professional products, skills which has proved tremendously useful through the years. After the internship ended, not only had I helped the company continue to grow and flourish, I had an enviable skillset to add to my CV.

The exploitative experiences were both for magazines (one print and one online), which were essentially intern farms, where armies of unpaid interns were used for their pre-existing skillsets (in my case, photography and video editing; for other interns: design, writing, etc.), for the direct economic benefit of the owners. A constantly changing team of interns were lured in with Craigslist ads promising valuable experience, with each recruit inevitably parting when he or she started to grasp the bait-and-switch nature of the transaction, or when rent came due, whichever came first. In neither internship did the ’employer’ even have the skillset in which I was ostensibly being ‘trained.’ Rather I, and the other interns I worked with, were using our pre-existing skillsets to create the end product. I am not naming names, for the precise reason that so many exploitative unpaid internships go unreported: to avoid a bad reputation within the industry. You do need these employers as references, so as to avoid gaping holes on your CV.

I can’t say that nothing came from the internships, as of course producing work over time and entering any industry at whatever level will build experience and connections. But these internships were nonetheless technically illegal. All jobs, from a McJob to a CEO of a Fortune 500, involve some introductory on-the-job training, and one learns something new and valuable at every job, paid or not. So where do you draw the line? The argument that internships are just fulfilling the necessary stepping-stone experience leading to paid work doesn’t pass muster. If the employer is profiting from the transaction, they must legally pay.

The whole point of minimum wage is to set a baseline living wage for all workers (people performing work for the profit of their employer). Given that America’s minimum wage is already ludicrously low by the standards of other developed nations, it would follow that employers should easily be able to compensate relatively low-skilled workers creating basic value for the enterprise.

Now, the problem with unpaid internships is obvious. Zero has become the new baseline, and companies that don’t use this pool of free labor are at a competitive disadvantage. The owners of one of the magazines I interned for are now personal friends, and not bad people, but to stay competitive with the other magazines, no doubt with their own battalion of interns, they had to place those ads.

So, to create a level playing field, in the spirit of minimum compensation laws, all unpaid internships must end.

What would this world, in which employers were not allowed to use free labor, look like? I highly doubt it would create an environment where no college graduates could get entry-level positions in their industry of choice. Rather, it would create a new normal, where the tasks now fulfilled by unpaid labor would become these entry-level jobs. Certainly, there would be an adjustment period, as businesses incapable of paying their workers would have to go without or rightsize. If your business can’t afford to pay it’s workers, it shouldn’t have those workers. But most of these businesses would adjust their budgets to create entry-level jobs for recent graduates, to perform the indispensable tasks now performed by unpaid interns. If they need more experienced workers, they adjust the pay accordingly. But minimum wage is there for a reason: to ensure that all productive citizens can feed themselves, and to level the playing field somewhat.

To have skilled college graduates, already somewhat trained in their field, reduced to working for free, has spawned a ludicrous system, where well-funded recent grads getting rent checks from their parents can accrue years of valuable experience, while their peers are effectively priced out of their desired industries. Luckily, some state and federal agencies are starting to crack down on the practice, as reported by the New York Times last year, but until companies understand clearly that no productive worker is exempt from fair compensation, we will have this harmful practice distorting the economics of the creative industries and beyond.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photographer, filmmaker and recovering intern in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.


One Response

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  1. George said, on June 18, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Craigslist is a major source of fake internship postings seeking experienced people with their own equipment to provide slave labor. Please join me in “flagging” these postings as illegal since they are clear violations of labor laws in every jurisdiction.

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