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Defending Indentured Servitude

Eliminating unpaid internships will greatly hurt all students

By Karthik R. Kasaraneni and Dhruv K. Singhal

The mushrooming number of undergraduates partaking in unpaid internships—up from nine percent in 1992 to 83 percent in 2008—has led many, including President Obama’s Labor Department, to question the legality and the advantages of such employment. Critics argue that the rise of unpaid internships has led to increased socioeconomic disparity, as lower-income students cannot sacrifice a summer salary to participate in such programs and are thus handicapped in the later race for post-collegiate jobs.

However, unpaid internships confer numerous benefits on employers and interns alike. All that President Obama’s restricting them will do is rob most students of valuable employment experiences while providing no added opportunity to low-income students. That said, many unpaid internships are indeed in violation of existing law, and the law therefore must be revamped to cement the legality of these internships.

Federal regulations that dictate which organizations can and cannot offer unpaid work do little to protect students from labor exploitation and much to deny them opportunity. Currently, an internship must meet six criteria to be legally unpaid. While most of these criteria are sensible enough, one that should be repealed is the stipulation that an internship must offer experience replicable at a vocational school or an academic institution, thus precluding a large number of industries from offering unpaid internships and limiting opportunities for jobseekers. Another worthy of repeal mandates that the employer cannot profit from intern labor. The latter criterion is the most often violated, demonstrating that interns view it as a fair trade to contribute to their employers’ profit margins in exchange for valuable work experience

Those who assert that employers exploit hapless students should recall that these very employers give many disadvantaged students the opportunity to develop a practical understanding of their desired field. They should also consider the possibility that internships are not merely superficial resume lining but often are a means of gaining nonreplicable hands-on experience, skills, and familiarity that students need in order to be hired full-time.

If employers were to heed the Obama administration’s wishes and honor the existing laws nominally banning unpaid internships, the number of opportunities available to students would dramatically decrease. Unpaid jobs would not suddenly change into paid ones; especially in this economy, the jobs would just go away. There is a reason why small companies with little capital are more likely to offer unpaid internships than the capital-laden behemoths of Wall Street.

Some opponents of unpaid internships argue that only non-profit companies should be allowed to hire interns, since they theoretically do not benefit economically from their interns’ labor. While many non-profits contribute admirably to the public good, this proposal is needlessly biased against those with interests outside of the non-profit sphere. The fact that an organization may profit from its services does not make it exploitative and evil. Doctors, for example, often practice for profit.

It is simply not the business of the government to cast normative judgments on different kinds of internships, be they profit versus non-profit or paid versus unpaid. Enforcing the ban on these internships, would even the playing field, but it would do so by reducing opportunity for all. Equality need not be bought at the expense of opportunity.

Karthik R. Kasaraneni ’12 and Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, Crimson associate editorial editors, live in Currier House. They concentrate in chemistry and English, respectively.

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