The 2020 Democratic primary has presented a plethora of candidates, each one pledging to improve the political and social dysfunction in the United States. One of these dysfunctions that has been addressed is the outrageous cost of attending college. A proposed solution is the concept of free tuition at four-year public universities. This would provide, particularly to those of lower socioeconomic classes, the opportunity to fulfill their goals. This would be a huge step, but it neglects the fact that college is not the only prerequisite for a successful career.
As a university student, my future career is something that I’m constantly stressing over, and I’ve been told that internships are the building blocks to my ideal job. As a result, I’ve taken on unpaid internships hoping that they would open the door to my chosen field. However, this idea tends to overlook the discriminatory nature of unpaid internships.
Unpaid internships create obstacles for low-income students and exploit students for cheap work. One instance of this is the numerous lawsuits against companies like NBC Universal or Condé Nast. In both cases, students felt that their tedious work consisting of “menial tasks” fell under the duties of a paid employee. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of the students. Despite these lawsuits being a major victory for students’ rights, there are still federal provisions that block our ability to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of our future fields.
A prime example of this is the lack of protection against harassment or discrimination in regard to interns in the workforce. This was established in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where laws are enforced to support employees in inappropriate work situations. Yet, there is no mention of provisions for unpaid workers or trainees, which makes these unpaid interns more susceptible to unsafe environments that can be detrimental to their emotional and physical health. This is the root of the exploitative nature of unpaid internships. Businesses grasp our dreams and dangle them in front of us, while we work under the belief that this is what it takes to make it. Our government believes this too.
Corporations and other establishments can justify their ability to not pay their interns because of laws constructed under the Department of Labor. According to the Department, there are seven factors that allow companies to not pay their interns. Of those factors, the most infuriating one is the apparent understanding between an intern and employer that “the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.” This particular factor is ironic, since the employer is allowed to feel entitled to free labor without any regard or consideration of financial obligation to their intern. It’s disheartening to see the lengths we go to and the treatment we endure in the hope of a greater payoff.
While it’s important to focus on the crippling effects that tuition rates can have on students, it is equally necessary to advocate against laws that subject students to potentially harmful treatment on the road to propelling their careers. Presidential candidates should pay closer attention to the harmful nature of unpaid internships to engage a wider voter demographic. This would be an important step in maintaining and promoting student justice, which ultimately could improve the U.S. and global workforces.
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Email Gabby Lozano at [email protected]