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What would you say to the seven full-time staff members at The L (out of a total of 12 on the editorial and operations side of things), who actually started as interns? (Including, yes,
Internships are a way to break in—no one denies that. The decision to work unpaid for a while, to make that sacrifice if you can, can certainly be a rational one on the part of an individual. But what are the broader effects of a system that requires you to work unpaid to break in? What are the chances that a young person from a lower-income backgound, someone who absolutely needs to work for pay, could become a full-time staff member at The L? And then what effect does that have on the editorial decisions and overall tone of the magazine—and what about on the media more generally since this is common practice?
Yeah, but why should I feel guilty about working with unpaid interns if they're banging down the door to work with us?
One reason some people don't feel guilty is because their interns can apparently afford to do it—they have money or support networks behind them. And the kids who can't afford to become unpaid interns don't even apply, don't even show up, and you'll never really see them or think of them, if you're mostly hiring from your intern pool. Still, I think everyone deserves pay for real work, regardless of their background, and it's dangerous for all of us when that principle starts eroding. The fact that interns are banging down the door reflects how much schools, parents, employers, and others are pushing them, how completely natural they've come to seem—it doesn't mean that young people want to work for free, they just see no other choice to get where they want to go.
Is this all just an inevitable and blameless Hegelian master/slave dynamic? Who is to blame? Colleges? Parents? Industry? Me?
You, Jonny, and nobody but you are to blame for the whole global internship racket. But seriously, it's something of a headless monster: no one group is completely responsible for pushing the new norm of unpaid work. Employers trying to save money, colleges promoting these positions, parents pushing their kids ahead, and young people devaluing their own labor and underbidding each other are all partially responsible.
What do I tell my interns after they've read this and learned they're
Maybe you're providing fantastic training and helping them land paying work—in which case it might not be exploitation at all, and you might be justified in asking them to waive their wages. Otherwise, tell them you value their work and you've ransacked the company coffers to find $7.25 an hour for them. Ask them if they'd like direct deposit or a check on their desk. I promise they'll be cheering, and will be more motivated in their work. You'll get a lot more applications from a broader range of talented people.
What's the most important thing they should know about their rights as interns? (After they've left The L Magazine.)
They should remember that interns are essentially workers in the vast majority of cases. As such, they are entitled to the same rights as workers—wages, overtime, workplace protections, and so on—and their work has value and dignity. They should be wary about unpaid situations and try to move quickly into paid ones. If they've spent time in an internship that doesn't meet the six-point test laid out by the Department of Labor, they should make it known and press for backpay.
What Free Labor Looks Like
Illustrations By Amy Devoogd