Are Unpaid Internships Slave Labor?

The rising tide of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns for violations of labor laws are evidence that some businesses consider interns to be exploitable, free labor. There are reasons that interns are traditionally unpaid, but it may be time for this to change.

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(Photo Credit: Travis Isaacs/Flickr)

Definition of Unpaid Intern

The United States Department of Labor lays out six clear rules that must be obeyed in order for an unpaid internship to be legal.

  1. "The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment." Hands-on experience is valuable and cannot always be obtained in a classroom. 
  2.  "The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern." This may be the most important regulation regarding unpaid internships. It is not an opportunity for the employer. 
  3.  "The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff."
  4. "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded."
  5. "The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship."
  6. "The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship."

Some academic degrees require internship experience, and interns receive school credit. For example, professional psychologists in all 50 states must complete internships, and they are usually unpaid.

If internships are required by institutions of education and professional regulation, it seems strange that businesses would be actively seeking interns. The Department of Labor makes clear that the benefits are for the student, not the employer. If anything, an intern may slow down operation because somebody has to teach the intern what to do, answer questions, and give the intern supervision toward their school grade.

Susan Adams at Forbes reports on the luxury shoe company Salvatore Ferragamo's advertisement on LinkedIn looking for an unpaid intern. The advertisement reads: "90-95% of the time will be spent on the sales floor working with product, sales associates and answering client questions when possible."

Anyone who has worked in retail can read between the lines here. The job is being on the floor, putting product back on the shelves, and keeping the displays neat. The intern will also try to talk people into buying stuff. As Adams points out, there is nothing in the job description about working the register. There is also nothing about learning the accounting side of the business or keeping the books, which would be much more valuable to somebody who wants to go into retail. Anybody can fold a shirt. While an intern should learn every aspect of the business, including maintaining displays, 90 percent of an intern's time should not be neatening shoes. 

Taking an intern under your wing and showing him or her every single aspect of the business takes time and effort on the part of the supervisor. Getting free labor to run around the store neatening displays is a boon to the employer.

A Foot in the Door

Some people say that an internship on your resume is an important feather in your cap when looking for a real job. It tells potential employers that you can hit the ground running.

But at what cost? If companies are violating employee labor laws, then perhaps it is time to start paying interns.

Tell Us What You Think

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