Free student labor

Unpaid internships should not be tolerated.

by Trent M. Kays

A majority of college students graduate with internship experience, yet we debate on whether to pay interns. This thorny subject creates problems when students seek out internships in order to prepare for the “real world” but can’t pay for the bare necessities.

Reflecting this brier patch, media company Condé Nast decided last week to end its popular internship program after two former interns sued under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The interns were taken advantage of in the name of experience. This follows a rise of lawsuits by unpaid or underpaid interns against their employers. While it rears its ugly head, the debate about the value of unpaid internships is relevant for the University of Minnesota community.

But before we tackle that subject, it’s imperative we consider Condé Nast’s move. Instead of paying federal minimum wage — currently set at $7.25 per hour — the media company decided it will just stop using interns. This effectively states that if Condé Nast cannot have free intern labor, it would rather not have intern labor at all.

Condé Nast has become yet another company unwilling to properly pay for services rendered by its workers. While challenges to such definitions grow, the Fair Labor Standards Act makes a distinction between “employee” and “unpaid intern.” Indeed, the U.S. Department of Labor provides a handy cheat sheet.

It outlines various points as to whether an intern should be paid. For example: The intern is supposed to receive training in the same way they would at an educational institution. The intern should not replace existing employees. The list goes on.

Yet, as Shakespeare suggested, “All that glitters is not gold.” Often, these unpaid internships turn into nothing more than free or inexpensive labor in the name of experience. As in, experience is your payment.

I ask you: Does experience pay your car insurance? Does experience pay your grocery bill? Unfortunately, no. Money pays the bills.

Certainly, all internships can provide wonderful experience and help interns understand their life’s trajectory. However, this doesn’t mean said interns suddenly do not need financial support. If internships were to replicate an experience at a company, they would be paid because people are generally paid for work.

I’ve long been an advocate for eliminating unpaid internships. Such internships take advantage of students’ requirements at universities and other higher education institutions. In some programs, students are encouraged to complete internships. In other programs, internship completion is a requirement. Even more despicable is that students pay for internship credit at an internship where they must work for free.

In other words, students pay to not be paid.

As a result of unpaid internships, it seems that only the independently wealthy can afford to take them. In the case of Condé Nast, former interns included a daughter of Ariana Huffington and a daughter of a CBS chief executive. In essence, those of privilege are able to pay to not be paid in order to foster relationships with people who may help them out in their careers. Those who need internships and are not sufficiently privileged are left to their own devices.

In many ways, this type of arrangement is counter to the promise of higher education. I don’t imagine many students enter college to be taken advantage of in such a way. The ways in which universities leverage students is unfortunate but not unusual. But such leverage that extends beyond the confines of the university and into the world outside is unacceptable. Instead of creating an opportunity for students to reconcile their education with a non-university experience, they become a cheap and never-ending source of labor for many companies.

Only in our perverse world would this arrangement be OK and sanctioned by a university. Unpaid internships prove problematic for those who need to finish coursework and work to pay for the internship at the same time. Students have value.

Students have knowledge, passion and expertise that they can bring to any experience. Through unpaid work, students are being treated as though they are rubes to be used and discarded.

Higher education should not allow its precious charge to be sullied in such a manner. Students deserve better than to simply be a group of cheap labor.

I’m sad to see the Condé Nast internship program canceled. But, I’m equally disheartened by the fact that such a powerful media company would rather cancel a program than pay a college student $7.25 per hour.

It seems workplaces, publications and other institutions are expecting more from their workers for less pay. There are some instances where I don’t mind working for free. It depends on the importance of my contribution, but as a rule, I would like to have food to eat and heat in the winter.

Those things aren’t luxuries; they are necessities. By denying interns any pay, companies basically declare their interns aren’t important enough for the necessities of life.

In a perfect world, experience would be enough. Yet, we don’t live in a perfect world, and I can’t pay my rent with “experience.”