Unpaid Internships: Legalized Slavery on its Way Out?

Unpaid Internships
Perhaps you’d be willing to work for this bauble?

A court decision in New York last week may have paved the way for the end of the very common industry practice of unpaid internships in the USA. While this of course has no direct legal bearing here in Canada, I wouldn’t be surprised if unpaid internships also eventually went the way of the Do-Do here north of the 49th.

I should start by saying that I have never worked in an industry that has internships, so I’m not writing from a position of particular insight. I’m writing more as a concerned member of society who thinks that legalized slavery should be abolished. Not a particularly nuanced view, as you can see, but let me explain.

How do people justify unpaid internships?

There seem to be two main attempted justifications at unpaid internships:

First, companies claim that they are offering opportunities to young people who might otherwise not have those opportunities. B.S. Young people would still have those opportunities because that work would still need to be done. That was the crux of the recent court decision; work of value is being performed, so that work should be compensated. If this were not the case, if companies were simply creating work that had no value to the company to keep interns busy, then it could perhaps be argued that no benefit is being realized by the company, so there would be no reason to pay interns. But of course, not only is that far from the truth, it’s ridiculous; if the interns are not providing value, then why would the company have them around? If they are providing value, then that value has to be compensated.

Secondly, companies claim that unpaid internships offer people the chance to improve their resumes. Am I to believe the that workers who actually get paid for the work they do are somehow unable to put that experience on their resumes? If a person works at a job, they have the right to list that experience on their CV, full-stop. How could any thinking person think that companies are somehow “helping” these unpaid interns out of the goodness of their hearts? Business may have worked that way to a degree at some point, but it’s a distant and fading memory at this juncture.

The benevolent slave-driver

I find it particularly amusing when businesses wrap themselves in the cloak of “helping young people get started in their careers” when they talk about unpaid internships. All professions require training new employees; it’s just that some companies have found a way to get anywhere from a few weeks to several months of free work out of these eager young people. These are generally the same people who seem to think that they are somehow morally superior for creating jobs in a society. Now, lest I come off as anti-business, let me assure you that I am not. I love capitalism, and I think that entrepreneurs should be encouraged and celebrated. But let’s be honest: when a company hires a new employee, it’s not for the purpose of helping society, or boosting the GDP, or even so that the worker can make his way in the world. No, the reason companies hire people is so they can make money for themselves. So save your holier-than-thou act for somebody who might buy it, because I sure as hell don’t. Now, add to that the fact that some companies try to justify not paying their de-facto employees at all, simply by referring to them as interns, and you can understand why so many people are so cynical with the business world these days.

Am I out to lunch?

It’s fairly clear what I think of unpaid internships, but as I said at the beginning, I have no direct experience with them. Am I missing something? I’m perfectly ready to be shown how there are aspect of this equation I’ve missed, but until and unless I hear those arguments, I’m afraid that I don’t think I’ll be changing my mind on this one.

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