Staff Editorial: Advocacy for the unpaid

To many, the GW experience is synonymous with the opportunity to land an internship in the nation’s capital. And GW definitely does its part to fuel that notion, with the University’s admissions Web site stating that “some 92 percent of GW students who graduate have at least one internship or career-related opportunity. It is not uncommon for students to have more than one internship during their undergraduate experience.” But at a time when the legality of the unpaid internship is being examined, there is a clear responsibility that falls on the federal government and GW to protect the rights of interns.

An increasing number of legislators worry that some of today’s internships are illegal. The New York Times (“The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” April 2) reported that the U.S. Department of Labor is cracking down on companies and firms that may be overworking their unpaid interns or breaking other labor laws. The troubled economy has forced companies to manage decreases in profits while facing a large pool of student applicants, all of whom are eager to gain work experience and accept working for no salary.

Employers of unpaid interns are required by federal law to follow six criteria in order to ensure that internship is legal. Of particular interest on the list is the clause that explicitly prohibits firms from deriving “immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees.” Almost anyone who has had a legitimate internship in D.C. can attest to the fact that this is not effectively enforced.

While the Department of Labor claims to be cracking down on illegal unpaid internships, there is much more that can be done. Interns – even those who are aware of their rights and the laws their employers could potentially break – are not going to be the first to either draw attention to their situation or refuse to perform prohibited tasks. The competition surrounding internships and the stress placed on securing a letter of recommendation makes students less likely to speak up for their rights. Instead, the Department of Labor needs to step forward and provide the advocacy that interns currently lack. This could be done either through the stricter enforcement of the laws currently in place, or through the creation of a division within the department geared specifically toward processing and addressing complaints about possible internship violations.

As a university that so frequently publicizes the internship opportunities available to students, GW also has an obligation to ensure that students understand their rights when working as an intern. Many GW students likely do not have an understanding of the laws that protect them as an intern. The Career Center, for example, should be placing more emphasis on not only helping students find an internship, but educating them on what a legal unpaid internship encompasses. Colonial Inauguration too is a time when incoming students hear about all the internship opportunities GW can provide, and students should walk away from CI with the knowledge of how to get an internship and how not to be taken advantage of by employers.

Given that 92 percent of GW students have held an internship prior to graduating, the University and students need to pay particular attention to the recent reports surrounding unpaid internships. If the quality of internships continues to decline without effective oversight and education, then being an internship-focused institution will not be something to brag about.

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