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When Did Internships Become Slave Labor Instead Of Opportunities To Develop Relationships And Knowledge About A Chosen Field?

The New York Times Magazine has a regular column called The Ethicist, which is currently written by Ariel Kaminer, whose previous job was editor of the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times.

The title of a recent column was The Internship Rip-Off. As is customary, the column was built around a letter received from a reader:

I took an unpaid internship that I figured would give me experience and help me land somewhere in six months. Instead I’m picking up coffee and dry cleaning and performing other tasks that the company would otherwise have to pay someone for. I know this is the status quo for internships, but it violates the law, and it feels deeply unethical. Taking legal recourse would hurt my career prospects. Is there anything I can demand of this company in exchange for my slave labor? 

Ms. Kaminer goes on to blast unpaid internships as inherently unethical because the internships can only be taken by people who don’t need a paycheck and thus give an advantage to the rich.

Although she acknowledges the practical difficulties of enforcing any such rights, Ms. Kaminer feels the letter-writer as “a matter of ethics” has a case. Ms. Kaminer states that the letter-writer “should be able to demand, or at least expect, that the internship offer a worthwhile return on the time and money you put into it — namely, a better sense of whether and how to pursue a career in that field, and the skills or relationships with which to do so.”

Ms. Kaminer also claims that unpaid internships are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and since being upfront about his or her complaints could ruin the intern’s reputation in the field, Ms. Kaminer suggests that the intern consider making a confidential complaint to the Labor Department.

The piece is interesting for several reasons. First, the whole approach has little to do with ethics as conventionally understood. For example, a core ethical issue is truth-telling. Yet this letter never says the intern was deceived or misled. The letter-writer says what he or she “figured,” but how the intern came to figure that is unrevealed. Since it seems as if the letter-writer would tell us how he or she had been duped or deceived, we have to conclude either that the internship provider was frank or that the letter-writer never cared enough to ask what an intern’s duties would be.

We don’t actually know what field this internship is in, but very possibly the letter-writer, rather than revealing a flaw of the internship, is revealing that he or she doesn’t know how to take advantage of the internship. In many cases, internships are valuable not because of the actual skills one learns while interning but because of the opportunity to develop contacts and make an impression on people in one’s chosen field who might be able to help one’s career.

This letter-writer sees getting cappuccino as degrading or insignificant but in the recently revived Broadway show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the two upwardly mobile protagonists, while working in the mailroom, fight over the opportunity to deliver the executive mail. Why? Obviously it is an opportunity to make an impression on people who can provide opportunities.

The letter-writer also shows no evidence of any initiative. In other words, if one gets an internship at The New York Times, and if one has ambitions to be a writer, perhaps one can work late nights on a story, then drop off a manuscript with an editor who one sees every week while delivering her Venti Soy Latte. At very least, one could ask if there was any way one could get a shot at doing some other work.

We have the strong suspicion that since this letter-writer has persuaded himself or herself that he or she is providing “slave labor” — although, of course, the intern is free to leave any time if he has a better offer or even if he doesn’t, which makes this comment an insult to slaves throughout history — this intern has already been typed as having a “bad attitude,” and nobody wants to spend time with the intern on substantive work.

After all, although the letter-writer acknowledges that doing various non-work-related tasks is “status quo for internships” — meaning the intern knowingly accepted a position doing exactly what he or she is doing — the intern has somehow decided that it “feels deeply unethical,” and although the legal status of the internship would not be any different if the intern were typing manuscripts or getting coffee, the intern really would like to pursue legal recourse against the firm that offered the internship opportunity.

The allegations of illegality are not really very meaningful. Yes, for-profit companies are not generally permitted to have interns work for free — the exception generally being if the program is university-sponsored and the student is getting credit for it. However, non-profits and government are generally permitted to have volunteer interns. The requirement, though, is just to pay minimum wage. There is little indication here that this particular intern would be all that much happier by getting minimum wage.

One could argue the law a bad one and should be changed. If two people come to a deal, where one wants exposure or experience and the other wants help getting coffee, it is not completely obvious why this should be banned. Still, for now, the law is the law.

Ms. Kaminer’s critique of non-paid internships as sops for the rich strikes us as not the critique it used to be. Today there are substantial student grants and loans available, and the alternative is often not working in the coal mine or even Starbucks, the alternative is doing another semester at the university.

The New York Times actually ran an article titled, “Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt,” which told the story of Cortney Munna, who racked up almost $100,000 in debt getting her degree in “religious and women’s studies” at NYU.

Is it completely clear that allowing Ms. Munna to pay good money for a semester studying such a subject is less abusive than giving such a person the opportunity to meet influential people in a field of her choice?

The Ethicist ought to ponder that for awhile. 

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