Unpaid Internships: Is Free Labor Fair Labor?

Dec 30, 2011

Unpaid internships are a valuable and sometimes necessary experience for college students and recent graduates, especially in light of the global financial crisis. But is this really a fair labor practice and does it just give an unfair advantage to more well-off job-seekers?

For young college graduates, the unpaid internship is a rite of passage. All across Europe and North America, offices are brimming with young and able interns, eager to devote their summers, semesters, and sometimes, even years. Many have college-level degrees and college-size debts. But most will earn nothing for their efforts.

In an era in which wages and work hours are regulated, what justifies the unpaid internship? Is free labor fair labor?

The debate on unpaid internships has brewed for several years. It accelerated in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, when job scarcity increased the appeal of unpaid job placements.

Today, the debate over internships runs something like this:

Employers (and many interns) argue that internships are mutually advantageous. Sure, interns don't get paid, but they earn something more valuable: experience. As interns, students and recent graduates learn a craft outside of the classroom. They establish networks, collegial relationships, and ultimately, build the foundation needed to find the job of their choice.

Critics are more skeptical.

They say unpaid internships often violate existing labor laws. Particularly in for-profit companies, interns act as unpaid hired hands. Rather than learn a trade, they learn the how-to's of office drudgery: making coffee, sending faxes, and learning the intricacies of the office printer. Rarely are they exposed to substantive work.

Others point to the inequity of internships. Because interns work for free, only the well-off can afford to take them. With rent to pay and college loans to meet, a lack of internship experience can put students of more modest means at a disadvantage. This means that wealth, not merit, determines the likelihood of future employment.

As you weigh the debate on unpaid internships, where do you stand? Are unpaid internships ethical?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

"Unpaid Employment: Inferno for Interns," The Economist, April 20, 2011

Ross Perlin, "The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not," The New York Times, April 2, 2011

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Bill Hrybyk/NASA Goddard [also for picture 5]
Jason Bache
U.S. Department of Labor [also for picture 8]
Walt Otto
Argonne National Laboratory
John Amis [also for pictures 10 and 12]
Andrew Hitchcock
Travis Isaacs

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