Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.


* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.