The desirability of the unpaid internship remains an ongoing debate, most recently spurred on by a lawsuit by Xeudan Wang, an intern for Hearst Magazines.
Wang sued Hearst for violating the US Labour Department’s criteria for unpaid internships, as outlined in the 1938 Fair Labour Standards Act, which in part aims to ensure the educational value of internships while guarding against the displacement of regular workers.
Wang has accused Hearst of violating these terms, stating that the employer must derive no immediate benefit from the intern, the internship must be for solely education purposes, and that the intern must not be a substitute for regular employees. Wang was allegedly working up to 55 hours a week during her internship, regularly doing menial tasks that should have been carried out by paid employees. These duties included delivery coordination and record maintenance.
Wang’s case relates to a broader change within the past years that has altered the basic structure of internships in general. Recall the original motivation behind internships, which started out as being a means of career exploration, a chance for a person to “try out” an industry to see if it was a fit for them or not. This motivation is alluded to in the Fair Labour Standards Act. Somewhere along the line, the internship evolved into being a competitive entry-level position, completing at least a few of which became essential to eventually procuring employment in a consistently unsteady job market. In this context, when does it become unethical to refuse an intern pay?
The idea behind unpaid internship started out with a focus on the interns, to allow them to gain hands-on experience within the industry, to allow them opportunities to network and to apply classroom theories to the real world. All in all, the idea was to amplify and fine-tune interns’ skill sets in a work environment while they learned new ones. Somehow, this ideal got warped along the way, sometimes transformed into unpaid exploitative labour, shifting the focus and benefit onto the employer.
Within the internship world there emerges a sub-divide which I want to focus on: smaller newspapers and journals, like those run by NGOs, versus corporate giants like Hearst.
NGOs rely on interns to do a significant chunk of work, but don’t have the resources to compensate them. Arguably, this enters the realm of volunteer work. Still, NGOs offer similar training and work experience as larger companies. Based on this context, unpaid internships in the nonprofit sector are usually justified.
However, larger corporations in the journalism and publishing industry cannot justify unpaid internships due to their different financial structures. These organizations tend to be relatively more attractive for their huge networking potential and higher employee salaries and so, procuring internships with them is often a fiercely competitive ordeal. In addition, when compared to internships with NGOs, those with larger corporations are often more demanding of an intern’s time, and the (generally) vertical organization structure leaves interns anonymous pawns, overworked and unpaid.
Wang’s lawsuit exemplifies this: interns overwork themselves for no pay, hoping to network, to procure employment, to get that corner office overlooking 57th street. Yet as these corporations find loopholes in Labour Department criteria and continue to get free labour from the intern, employment remains elusive for the intern.
The debate over unpaid internships is then not about making every employer pay its interns; it is about assessing types of employer and their capacity to pay. As NGOs are fiscally constrained, expecting them to pay their interns is not realistic, it would simply force them to reduce the number of, or completely remove, their internships. However, if corporate giants were to be pressured into paying their interns, the amount of internships they offer would not change significantly, since the resulting dent in their profits would be relatively small. Reaping profits by the billions while leaving interns starving hardly seems ethical, whatever corporate spin you put on it.
Tamkinat Mirza is a U3 Humanistic Studies student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org