Commentary | Unpaid internships: a raw deal

Unpaid internships suck...and other middle-class problems

I am on the internet, again, looking for work, again. Feeling decidedly underwhelmed by a dearth of employment opportunities and the general banality of my quest, I wonder, as I often do these days, how I will be paying my rent come July and why – WHY – the only positions that are remotely within my reach and field of interest are unpaid internships. How is this a thing? When did it become normal for companies to ask young people to work for them for free? And when did we start lining up?

A pause. ‘But it isn’t free,’ one might argue. ‘Even if an internship is not compensated monetarily, it is an opportunity to gain knowledge/experience/hands-on training. It is an investment in your future.’ There was a time when I, too, was of this persuasion. Now I think it is major bullshit, for reasons we will return to momentarily.

On the flip side, one might ask why we should care at all about the ways in which upper-middle-class (probably) white kids elect to spend their summers. A thousand tiny violins for the kids who feel they are being exploited while attempting to ascend the ranks of the white-collar workplace. This is completely valid. The problems of unpaid interns pale in comparison to just about every other exploitative practice of their corporate employers. When you consider the physical labour that is outsourced by North American corporations in countries where our iParaphenalia are born, it’s hard to juice tears for the 22-year-old kids stapling spreadsheets to their hands in Midtown office buildings. The fact that a person is even in a position to consider an unpaid internship to butter their resume or garner practical learning experience designates incredible privilege. Nevertheless, these practices of exploitation – local and global, minor and major – are not unrelated.

Even those among us who can’t or won’t entertain the idea of working at an unpaid job should consider the implications of this trend. With the economic downturn, many companies are turning to unpaid interns as a source of free labour. Paid entry-level positions are being cut in favour of a revolving door of recent graduates willing to work for free as they buttress their portfolios, perhaps in the hopes of being offered a job upon the expiration of their (non)contract or simply to gather ‘experience’ as they wait out the recession. But these sorts of agreements between intern and employer are often ambiguous, indirectly articulated and offer no guarantee of future employment (‘But you said!’). They are contingent on a future that is entirely uncertain. In many cases, the paid entry-level positions everyone and their grandmother are fighting for are precisely those that have been eliminated in favor of unsalaried internships.

Equally dubious is the legal status of interns in relation to their employers. Unpaid interns are not classified as employees and do not have the same (read: any, beyond basic civil) rights. No salary means no taxes and hundreds of millions of dollars saved by North American corporations every year. It is as if we are volunteering just to keep the system on its feet.

If unsalaried interns are vulnerable, the majority of unemployed Gen-‘whY me’s are concomitantly disadvantaged by shifting expectations. Individuals who can afford to work for free wind up with a pancake stack of internships on their resume and thus sit ahead of those working doubles at Medieval Times in anticipation of January’s hydro bill.

Of course, there are people who navigate the perilous waters of no-dollars jobs and work to make it happen for themselves. Plenty of unpaid interns work multiple jobs in order to finance their more glamorous, intellectually-stimulating day jobs. In many cases a second job can make the dream job feasible, but it adds up to a hell of a lot of hours. Spend all day at the real job, then a swift, Clark Kent phone booth change and off to the job that pays for it. Family time, creative time, leisure time – all of these legitimate personal needs – suffer as a result.

When did we become accustomed to thinking that this was an acceptable offer? I am not talking about time spent working on projects of passion; I am talking about what we consider and classify as ‘work’ and why it needs to pay the rent. Compensation for labour is a basic necessity and if this sounds like it issues from a sense of entitlement, rightly so. Ross Perlin states it simply in Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy: if a business cannot afford to pay its employees minimum wage, it cannot afford to be in business. When I read that a company is soliciting young, intelligent people to work for them for forty hours a week for the possibility of a high-five and a birthday card, it offends me in more than a ‘my mom thinks I’m special’ kind of way.

If this is the new standard, we have to wonder where it came from and how it has become naturalized in our society. Speaking to serial interns, several phrases recur in the rationalization process. ‘Investing in the future’ is a big one, as is the old culturally-engrained adage ‘paying [one’s] dues.’ Such rationales are entrenched in a conservative ideology that dictates an illusive, infinitely-delayed reward system while dehumanizing the ‘human capital’ at its disposal. The system is psychologically damaging: it makes us feel that we cannot be self-sufficient until we jump through its hoops. To have your work undervalued, to feel indebted to a company you are working to impress while a sad bag of conciliatory Sun Chips from the vending machine puts you at a net loss for the day – are these really the options?

Well, no. Obviously not. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that I’ve fallen into the same mind trap that dictates this insane logic of dues-paying to a higher authority. I’ve become caught up in the false dichotomy Perlin addresses in Intern Nation: the perception that “the only alternative to high-powered careerism is ‘Do you want fries with that?’” And while Perlin and other voices in the internship debate call for companies to meet minimum wage requirements for their interns, I realize I would never want to work for an organization that was inclined to systematically exploit their lower orders in the first place. Why bend over backwards and forfeit all person-time just to demonstrate my readiness for the white-collar working world I never wanted? My resume doesn’t stack up like pancakes; I can deal with that. Resolve: to refigure my commitments, consider the oxymoronic term ‘business ethics,’ and radically revise my search engine keywords.

Lucy Cameron is a U-whatever English and Philosophy student. Tell her how wrong she is at lucy.cameron@mail.mcgill.ca.


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