Trevor Marsden: Unpaid internships are immoral

Over the summer, a strange thing happened: The unwashed masses of unpaid interns broke their shackles and slew their oppressors.

Of course, this is hyperbole, but you get the point. In June, a federal district court judge in New York ruled in favor of former unpaid interns who sued Fox Searchlight Pictures for compensation. The interns had performed menial tasks like taking lunch orders and organizing filing cabinets.

That opened the floodgates, as lawsuits at organizations like Gawker Media, Warner Music and Condé Nast are now also underway.

These developments are encouraging, but the very fact that interns have to take corporations to court to be compensated means that we are having the wrong conversation about internships. At GW and in D.C. – a haven for interns, paid and unpaid – that conversation is even more critical.

Not all interns experience the horror stories referenced in the lawsuits. But this does not exempt companies, nonprofits and other potential employers in the U.S. from their collective moral failing in allowing a generation of laborers to become accustomed to unpaid work. This sets us back instead of pushing us ahead.

Before the bright-eyed intern makes his or her first pot of coffee, we must acknowledge that the idea and practice of unpaid internships in the modern economy is strangely immoral. Unpaid interns are little more than modern indentured servants by another name, and they should be financially compensated for their work.

To wit, the Department of Labor has published guidelines for hiring unpaid interns under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It lays out six criteria that, if all met, define a certain position as a supposedly legitimate unpaid internship.

Many of the lawsuits from former interns hinge on an argument directed against the second and fourth criteria: “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern,” and “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its activities may actually be impeded.”

Reading these two rules in quick succession invites cognitive dissonance to anyone who has interned. How can you have a beneficial and substantive experience without actually helping the corporation that you work for? Even if you’re only pouring coffee or making copies, you’re still helping the institution.

These guidelines don’t make sense, and they should be discarded – along with the practice of unpaid internships altogether.

That’s because the class of people who can afford to take unpaid work is small, creating systematic economic inequality before those workers even leave college.

Besides, the majority of companies that hire interns can afford to pay them a minimum wage anyway. The CEO of NBC makes a base salary of $2.24 million per year, Condé Nast is turning double-digit gross profit growth per year and Fox Searchlight is a giant media conglomeration. The idea that they can’t or somehow shouldn’t compensate interns due to financial constraint is absolutely ridiculous.

Yes, those in favor of internships argue that students receive valuable experience from networking opportunities and face time with important professionals in your field of interest. They say it gives students an early peek into the working world.

But this capitalist society – where money drives success – is placing a higher premium on the amorphous concept of experience than our own finances. For every moment we’re not being paid for filing papers and writing memos at our internships, we’re losing money we need to sustain our lifestyles.

The writer is a senior majoring in philosophy.

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