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Unpaid internships are unethical free labor

Not paying interns reinforces classist, capitalistic structures.
Illustration: April Kinney • The Sentry

All work should be compensated

Internships are an amazing opportunity for college students. They give students a chance to better understand their field and they teach a lot about how the workplace operates. Students get to learn in a real-world environment. However, many internships are unpaid. This is an exploitative practice implemented by companies to use free labor.  

Yes, interns aren’t necessarily the most essential part of a company. They get coffee for the paid employees, they do basic tasks, and they observe how the office runs. But interns are often in the office full-time: 9 a.m.–5 p.m., five days a week. That’s the equivalent of a full-time job. What does someone do if they’re financially independent, paying for college independently or otherwise must have an income to survive?  

Unpaid internships disproportionately benefit students who are wealthy enough to live without a real income. These are students who are often still dependent on their parents to finance their lives. So for a student who has to work their own job to survive, working a full-time, unpaid internship is next to impossible. Gaining experience is great for the future, but what about putting food on the table today?  

According to a 2017 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 percent of full-time college students work outside of school, and 10 percent of full-time college students work more than 35 hours a week. Working full-time, even over-time, at a position that does not offer monetary compensation is out of the question for many students. Meanwhile, students who are already financially ahead in life due to inherited wealth gain the experiences and opportunities of internships, further tipping the scale in their favor.  

According to The Guardian, half of the nearly 1.5 million internships in the United States are uncompensated. Why? Because the employer wins: someone to complete menial tasks, get coffee, maybe make a spreadsheet, but for free. The employer gains big profits from the unpaid labor of a college student, all in the name of  “opportunity.”  

Unpaid internships are often justified based on the opportunity they give to students. Interns are able to show a company their skillsets and work ethics, which may lead to an eventual hire, plus in some cases  students can receive course credit for their internship. However, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, only 43.9 percent of unpaid interns were hired after their internship had ended, while 72.2 percent of paid interns were hired by the company they interned for. Paid interns were also offered significantly higher salaries upon joining their companies permanently than their unpaid counterparts.  

Internships are a great resource for gaining experience while still going to school. They act as a bridge between getting a college degree and entering the workforce. But internships require the same work and effort as any other paid job. Sure, they’re not as technical or high-stakes as a supervisory, salaried position. They’re the starting point for most companies. But the work of interns should be compensated. Free labor is not acceptable: it reinforces classist, capitalist structures by giving greater opportunity to already wealthy students.

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