opinion | Unpaid internships privilege wealthier students over the working class
Unpaid internships are one of those simple solutions for a certain class of employers and students.
For middle and upper class employees and students, the established free labor trade is beneficial for industry connections and experience. But for working-class, first-generation, and minority students, the reality of having to be paid to live, eat, and participate in these systems replaces the fantasy of the unpaid internship.
Many employers who would otherwise be required to reward a qualified worker can take advantage of an unethical and unfair system of unpaid work. And students whose journey is paid for, often by their parents, can participate in these schemes because the lack of compensation doesn’t hurt them that much. This system is the most discriminatory and exclusionary for financially independent students.
The conditions for financially independent, working-class and first-generation students are already very different from those for financially dependent, upper- and middle-class students. Financially independent students and minority students are rather work Part-time jobs and working more hours than their financially dependent and white counterparts. In addition to work more hours than their financially dependent, higher-income peers, lower-income students are also less likely to have jobs related to their career goals and are less likely to have paid internships.
These working class and low-income students are less able to pursue unpaid internships, particularly the coveted, competitive coastal internships that require moving for a semester or a summer. Especially so many internships before the COVID-19 pandemic, required relocation, usually without stipend or payment. These jobs are out of reach for most students who spend the summer living and working at home and don’t have the parental bankroll needed to pay for an expensive sublease in a city.
So while some college students spend the summer working nearly 40 hours a week in minimum-wage positions, relying on tips and paying off predatory personal loans, kids with a cute parenting setup gain industry experience, professional contacts, and resume fillers from high-profile companies.
As Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, wrote for the New York Times“America’s current internship system, where connections and money are more important than talent, contributes to an economy where access and opportunity benefit those who already have the best of both worlds.” Walker highlights how unpaid internships add an additional Privilege for already privileged students.
This is a system so ingrained and so exploitative that federal and state regulators have it examined Employers for illegally using interns for unpaid work. Officials in New York, California and other states began Investigations and fines against employers in 2010. Interns are, too, because they are unpaid workers not protected under the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Age discrimination in labor law.
This means that unpaid interns are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and harassment, and states like California have recognized this and protect interns with laws like that Fair Employment and Housing Act. This system of unpaid labor is widely recognized as unethical, discriminatory and sometimes illegal, but it persists because it is so incredibly profitable.
But as much as employers and companies benefit in the short term, the long-term consequences of unpaid internships affect everyone. For working-class students, being denied short-term opportunities to develop skills and make professional connections means they start from the back when they enter the workforce. And by excluding these students and self-selecting for privileges, entire industries, including journalismdeny the innovation, skills and perspectives that working-class, first-generation and minority students have to offer.
Industries that rely heavily on unpaid interns end up looking like 18th-century European kings—white, isolated, and without real perspective. And when career fields, particularly tech, engineering and journalism, resemble a French monarchy more than the American dream, they become echo chambers for privileged positions.
The individuals most likely to be able to complete unpaid internships and most easily receive the benefits that come with them are also the individuals least likely to see the privileges and injustices associated with the internship system.
Nadiya Elyse Greaser is a queer, disabled writer interested in the intersections of identity and community life. Write to her [email protected]