Unpaid internships do not adhere to Dept. of Labor standardsPosted on September 3, 2013 | by Nina Golshan
Most students will face a major dilemma during their college careers — the choice between devoting 16 hours a week to a paying job, perhaps at a restaurant or local coffee shop, or taking those 16 hours and investing them in an experience that pertains to their field of study. The choice seems obvious. But when those 16 hours a week in a professional environment to gain experience in our chosen major go without pay, the choice becomes almost impossible.
Recently, news coverage of the lawsuits against companies like NBCUniversal, Condé Nast and Gawker have sparked controversy over the ethics of unpaid internships. Labor advocates have criticized unpaid internships, arguing that a majority of these positions amount to slave labor, and companies do not adhere to the Labor Department’s six criteria for an unpaid internship program under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Based on the FLSA, which states that the internship is to benefit the intern and not the employees, some companies are conducting their unpaid internships unlawfully.
Companies in the private sector ultimately seek a profit. The educational value of an internship for the intern is secondary. A friend of mine, a sophomore at NYU, works as an unpaid intern for a major fashion magazine, and she frequently recounts her activities: coffee runs and laundry pickups for the boss. This certainly doesn’t benefit her, but what incentive do for-profit companies have to pay interns when they will work for free?
Lawsuits against huge corporations like NBC may make ripples in the news, but the only way to fix the problem is from the students’ end. However, a nationwide strike of unpaid internships is a bit far-fetched.
This does not mean that unpaid internships are a lost cause. Nonprofit organizations, compared to those in the private sector, can better provide students with the educational experience they need in the field they want to pursue without milking them for their labor hours. Haven’t we all volunteered at some point in our lives? Volunteering for a nonprofit, albeit in a more official capacity, or working as part of the marketing team or legal department can make unpaid internships more about learning and less about fetching coffee or making copies.
For NYU students, living in the center of the country’s finance, technology, art and media markets sounds like a dream in terms of procuring work. However, the burden of unpaid internships undermines the benefits of these opportunities, and many students do not have the luxury of giving away their time for free work. Unpaid internships should not be advertised as a way to gain “real world experience,” because in the real world, employees are compensated for their work, and it is this compensation that provides the basic motivation necessary to complete real work.
A version of this column appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 3 print edition. Nina Golshan is a staff columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.