A lot of people newly entering the work force or trying to find work in a new area after being laid off discover a catch-22, that employers often require them to have some experience but that they can’t get experience until they get employed. Unpaid internships are often touted as a way of breaking that cycle, a means of getting work experience without the employer incurring any long-term financial commitment to an untested employee. Hence such internships are becoming increasingly common as many succumb to their lure, hoping they will improve their chances of future paid employment.
In this interview on The Colbert Report Ross Eisenbrey, Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute explains why unpaid internships are bad.
(This clip appeared on February 28, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)
Although there are supposed to be strict rules to prevent exploitation, they are rarely enforced and some companies and employers take advantage of hard times to get free labor. Another bad consequence that he did not mention in the interview is that this practice disproportionately benefits the children of the wealthy. But I found that he had written an article addressing exactly that point.
Unpaid internships, in particular, exclude students from poorer families who can’t afford to work for nothing for a summer or a semester, especially after they graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. The children of affluent families, on the other hand, can afford to live in the most expensive cities in the U.S., such as New York and Washington, making contacts, building their resumes, and sometimes even learning skills, while their parents pay for their room and board, travel and entertainment. Before even taking into account the family connections that reserve some of the best opportunities for the sons and daughters of the affluent, the $4,000-$5,000 cost of, for example, moving to Washington and living for 10 weeks prevents almost any working class kid from taking an unpaid internship.
The deck is increasingly stacked against the lower-income classes in the US. This is just one of the reasons why social mobility in the US is now less than in those countries that we used to think of as having a rigid class structure (as in Europe) and income inequality is rising in the US while declining in Latin America.