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Employment seekers in Southfield, Mich., in June. (AP photo)

How many workers are losing their jobs to unpaid interns?

ASK THIS | July 18, 2011

Writer Ross Perlin sees mounting public and private sector use of unpaid young workers and even older ones. In some instances, that’s a traditional way to get a foot in the door. But in many others it seems to be an abusive means of getting free help. Whatever happened to the principle that an honest day’s labor should be rewarded with a fair wage?

By Ross Perlin

In the middle of an intractable recession, with unemployment persistently high, unpaid labor is more common than ever before. Every year, one to two million interns labor in offices across America, with millions more worldwide—some earning minimum wage but between a third and half of them unpaid. It’s a massive violation of employment law, but few complain. After all, interns want to get ahead, and a period of unpaid work is seen as an investment in one’s future, an unavoidable rite of passage.

In my book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, I give an overview of a sprawling, chaotic "system" that increasingly dictates how young people enter the workforce. Internships are one of the fastest-growing categories of work in America, and now indeed globally. They have become standard operating procedure at a huge range of for-profit, non-profit, and government offices.

And it’s no longer just about college kids trading a little busy work for a foot in the door. More and more interns are high school students, recent college graduates, and older people looking to switch fields or tread water in the labor market. The wider social impact of the internship boom is just now being felt—the loss of entry-level jobs, the erosion of traditional training, the displacement or replacement of full-time workers, a “race to the bottom” among young people in a depressed labor market. Most troubling of all is the emergence of a system where you have to pay to play for your career—a more unequal society, in which access to elite professions depends on the ability to work unpaid.

Q. How often are interns replacing or displacing full-time workers, saving $2 billion in labor costs for unscrupulous employers? Can this be justified?

Q. Is there a connection between the rise of internships and record levels of youth unemployment? What ever happened to the entry-level job?

Q. In many industries and firms, internships do lead to jobs, and in fact have become the gateway for those looking to break in. Given this crucial role that internships now play, is the internship race more about what you know or who you know?

Q, Unpaid interns are currently not considered employees under U.S. law and therefore lack all standard workplace rights and protections. Who is responsible, and who should be responsible, if an unpaid intern is sexually harassed, discriminated against, or injured on the job?

Q. Why haven’t labor unions expressed more concern with the rise of unpaid work?

Q. Do our society's values include the basic principle that an honest day's labor should be rewarded with a fair wage? If internships violate this principle and are still considered fine, is there any limit to the work we might ask or require people to do without pay?

Q. Given the Labor Department’s six-point test of an internship’s legality (based on the Fair Labor Standards Act), what internships are actually legal? How are companies across America breaking the law with unpaid internships and getting away with it? If few interns are complaining, is it a "victimless crime" that we should allow to continue?

Q. What are the internship prospects for young people who don't attend college, and likewise those who attend community college and need to work full time to support themselves? If internships are effectively out of reach for these groups, what are their chances of getting ahead in the white-collar world?

Q. How do government offices use interns? Why are there such discrepancies—as I discovered in researching my book—with half of government interns paid and half unpaid and with so much variation in the practices of federal, state, and local government offices?

Q. Why do so many white-collar interns work without pay, without legal protection, and without training while blue-collar apprentices are generally decently paid, legally protected, and well-trained in structured programs?


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