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What Is It Worth to Work for Free?

An essay in the New York Times by Kevin Carey, the New America Foundation’s education policy director, analyzes the internship phenomenon. Carey ties the ascendance of the intern to “tectonic shifts in the structure of the American economy.”

Basically, manufacturing declined as an increasingly interconnected global economy allowed workers in other countries to produce goods more cheaply than American laborers. Those lost work opportunities were replaced—“with jobs requiring a college degree.”

Carey points out that business degrees swelled in popularity as liberal arts degrees stagnated. This “presents a challenge for colleges”:

The best way to learn business often involves working in a business. But while tuition is paid in exchange for credit for history classes, that’s not the case with jobs in businesses. Thus, the academic internship, in which colleges get tuition to not teach students and businesses pay little or nothing for students’ work.

Carey mentions the recent lawsuits filed on behalf of unpaid interns, surmising that firms are so eager to provide college credit “as a way of minimizing their legal liability.” But this leaves the educational aspect of internships in the hands of a non-educator: a corporate supervisor with little to no incentive to ensure a fruitful experience for the intern. Carey’s summary captures the essence of the problem: “The college internship as we know it today has evolved into an awkward marriage between organizations with very different missions,” the university and the corporation.

Somewhat ironically, as he points out in his essay, Carey’s own employer does not pay most of its interns.

A more robust criticism of unpaid internships recently appeared in Dissent magazine, by Madeleine Schwartz. The piece breaks down the inherent difficulty in labor organizing for interns, due in part to the fact that “precarious workers” don’t recognize how much they have in common with other workers like them: “If we are to fix the problems of contingent work, we need to find a new way to talk about work that encompasses all the work done today–unpaid, part-time, and insecure.”

The essay features new quotes from Eric Glatt, a former intern for Fox Searchlight who sued the company for not paying him. His insights make it clear—in filing his lawsuit, he saw the big picture:

[Interns are] so accustomed to learning, learning, learning [that] they don’t have a sense of when they are contributing to someone’s profit making . . . they themselves don’t think that they have anything to offer employers until they are at a really seasoned level. The decision I made to sue was because I recognized a real structural problem with the economy [….] No one would expect someone to go into a factory and work six months for free. People understand that automatically as labor.

Until structural changes grant more agency and protection to the individual worker, Schwartz writes, “[l]egal recourse is crucial.”

If an employer has illegally underpaid you or otherwise mistreated its employees, The Harman Firm has the expertise and resources to help. Contact us today.

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