“Go and Get Your Own Coffee”: Could This Be The End of The Unpaid Intern?

School is out for the summer! Once upon a time, as final exams were being taken and heads were being measured for graduation cap ‘n’ gowns, students would only need concern themselves with that ultimate question : would this summer would be more about watching MTV or catching STD’s?

In this era of debt-ridden education however, the final bell of class now also doubles as the starting bell for the stampede of desperate youngsters rushing to gratefully give away their labor sans payment. The internship, once the reserve of only the most exclusive of industries like politics or journalism, is now a right of passage for almost any young person in the West who still carry delusions about one day carving out careers for themselves. The premise is simple: in lieu of financial recompense, the wide-eyed youngster will in exchange for a brief period of free labour receive invaluable experience, contacts and if they should impress, perhaps that elusive job offer at the end of the internship. Unpaid internships are not easy but at least its the first step on the ladder towards a glittering career, right?

Wrong! Too often interns working tirelessly in the hope of getting that lucky break just resemble a modern day Sisyphus, cursed by Zeus to roll a huge rock up a hill which would forever roll back down before it reached the top.

However, just when it seemed that there was no stopping the unpaid internship, last week U.S. district court judge, William H. Pauley III, broke the mould by ruling that Fox Searchlight Pictures had fallen foul of the law with their use of unpaid interns in the production of Black Swan. Pauley stated that the internships in question were illegal because they ‘were incidental to working in the office like any other employees and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them.’ Put simply, these young people were not learning anything on their internships, and were in fact  little more than ‘go-fetch’ people brought in to make the coffee and do the work no one else wanted to do. In the creation of this film, itself a story about competitive young wannabees being over-worked and under-appreciated, it seems life was imitating art. With his ruling, Judge Pauley has opened up a debate about the morality of this practice of unpaid internships, a debate that never occurred before internships insidiously established themselves at the heart of so many industries.

Defenders of the unpaid internship stress the voluntary nature of the agreement. Nobody is forcing these young people to undertake this work after all, if it is so unbearable then why are these schemes inundated with applications? Firstly, when an industry institutionalises internships to the extent that entry-level jobs are inaccessible without them, as is the case from fashion to finance, then the free will of the individual that the defenders rely upon is seriously restricted. The choice becomes ‘work for free now or accept you will never work in this industry.’ Secondly, despite the proselytising of free-will absolutists, the consent of a victim isn’t enough to absolve the wrong-doer of guilt should he do him harm. That is why the minimum wage does not carry an ‘opt-out’ option. If it did, there would be many who would give up their rights in the hope of getting work, creating downward pressure on all lower-income workers. Also, defenders like to argue that while the companies don’t pay out in money for unpaid internships, they do pay out in the time and energy that they spend training these interns. These interns don’t add much value to the company but cost a lot in terms of lost time, surely enough of a burden for the companies. But as we have seen, there is often very little training given, not including ‘don’t put the milk in first when making a cup of tea.’ Moreover, this perspective relies on a very altruistic characterisation of businesses. These are profit seeking entities after all, if these internships were costing them so much in lost time and potential revenue, they would be cut faster than you could say ‘where is my photocopy?’

Unfortunately, we currently live in a monetized world where often the only thing the matters is the size of ones pay-check. By the standards of that monetized world, internships are essentially an arrangement in which the companies get something for nothing- a situation which fits the popular understanding of the meaning of the word ‘theft’. Furthermore, beyond the moral argument, unpaid internships also carry the practical consequence of skewing the job market in favour of the children of the wealthy, as only they can afford to work for months without pay. Left unchecked, the trajectory of unpaid internships has unsurprisingly led to the state of not only working without pay but actually paying to work! At a fundraiser for the British Conservative party, prestigious internship positions were auctioned off to pushy-parents for average of £3,000 per position. At least that still may be in the price-range of a group of thrifty anarchists wanting to infiltrate a saboteur into the heart of the beast, it is not, after all, as expensive as a one-week internship with Vogue, which cost $42,500 at an auction in 2010.

Currently, with a combination of increased tuition fees and record youth unemployment, the conditions are perfect for companies to drive graduates and students into a race to the bottom. Internships can, when well carefully designed, give young people the opportunity to learn the ropes of their chosen industry. But in this climate of ‘the long recession’ the temptation must be there for struggling companies to take on interns, place them at a desk, ignore them if they don’t need them and when suitable, use them for roles that should be someones paying job and repeat the whole process every 6 months ad infinitum. Society has to be honest and accept that when this happens, the internship is no longer about opportunity but now about exploitation. Because this practice will only lead to a generation of very-educated, very-embittered young people which historically hasn’t been the best thing for society and governments at large.