The Truth About Unpaid Internships

BreakingModern — Contrary to contemporary belief, the word “internship” is not a euphemism for free labor. Yet many young people feel an obligation to hop on the early rungs of their career ladder gratis, which opens up the question: Are internships just another form of entry-level servitude?

Unpaid Internships Out of Context

High profile brands like Lena Dunham and Sheryl Sandberg have been criticized for cheaping out on paying fair wages to their laborers. First, Sandberg’s Lean In organization’s editor-at-large, Jessica Bennett, made a Facebook post soliciting unpaid interns — which immediately elicited a slew of angry Internet comments pointing out concerns of exploitation under the guise of empowerment.

“Why does Lean In offer an unpaid internship? Really? I thought women should lean in and demand more money. Unpaid work, be it internships for young women or volunteer positions for older moms, is exploitative. Shame on Lean In. Pay up,” wrote Facebook user Michele Morris.

Then Dunham came under fire after hiring a creative lineup — including performance artists, comedians, gymnasts and a ukulele player — as opening acts for the 12-city book tour of her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.

The issue? They weren’t paid. Popular gossip blog Gawker calculated Dunham’s estimated earnings as a producer, actor and author — about $10 million — of which zero percent was originally allocated for Dunham’s opening acts. Dunham ultimately decided to pay her creative laborers, and took to Twitter to respond to the criticism:

“As an artist raised by artists, no one believes more than I do that creators should be fairly compensated for their work. Some good points were raised and I’ve ensured that all opening acts will be compensated for their time, their labor and their talents.”

Yet not everyone felt that she needed to do that — including Caroline Bassett, a 24-year-old comedian who was among the selected opening acts.

“I’m fine with not being paid because of the circumstances surrounding the event — I essentially volunteered by applying. I have a chance to work with someone whom I respect and who’s highly accomplished, which is rare for someone at my level,” Bassett told Gawker. “I don’t really understand why people are getting upset about it on my behalf.”

Well, Caroline Bassett, kindly allow me to respond. People are not upset just on your behalf, but on behalf of the growing legions of unpaid or underpaid laborers in today’s work force.

Unfortunately, some employers are willing to take advantage of this willingness to work for less. As one new media manager put it: “‘We need to hire a 22-22-22, … meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year.” That comment found in The New York Times.

Fight Back

A real internship ought to be structured to primarily benefit the intern — not the other way around. The practice of creating jobs without compensation not only treads into illegal territory, but it contributes to unemployment, and often preys upon young workers who are not aware of their labor rights.

“Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work,” writes the legal team at Outten & Golden, a New York-based employment law firm. “The practice of classifying employees as ‘interns’ to avoid paying wages runs afoul of federal and state wage and hour laws, which require employers to pay all workers whom they ‘suffer or permit’ the minimum wage and overtime. Employers’ failure to compensate interns for their work, and the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot, and indirectly contributes to rising unemployment.”

Unpaid interns are suing their former employers with an unprecedented success. Recently, a whopping $6.4 million was awarded to former interns at NBCUniversal. Awardees of the class-action payout — the biggest payout to former interns in history — included lead plaintiff Monet Eliastam, who said she worked at least 25 unpaid hours per week on the set of Saturday Night Live.

A slew of more intern class action cases are currently in trial — against Fox, Sony, Warner and Viacom, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

For BMod, I’m Raquel Cool.

First image: “Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook” by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr Creative Commons

Second image: Lena Dunham TFF 2012 Shankbone 3” by David Shankbone via Flickr Creative Commons

Feature/Header image: By Roman Harak (North Korea - Waitress) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Raquel Cool

Author: Raquel Cool

Raquel Cool is a Silicon Valley-based writer who covers tech, culture, science, and feminist issues. Raquel’s work has been published by the The Bold Italic, The Social Justice Journal, Mutha Magazine, Our Bodies Ourselves, and

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1 Comment

  1. This is really great insight about the sometimes ugly truth behind internships (especially here in SV). From the tech early-stage start-up space where I spend most of my time consulting with CEOs and founders, sadly, I have recently observed a few unenlightened leaders who proudly view interns as free, expendable labor (most are women, BTW), thinking that “generously” offering a few shares of valueless equity and meaningless titles as incentives is more than fair in exchange for the not-so-great-experience to be had. Needless to say, I’m not working with or helping to promote those startups any longer. But more importantly hoping to help change that going forward. Thanks Raquel!

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