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Youth Employment Pt 2: The Irony of Unpaid Internships

February 3, 2010

In December I began to write about the irony of unpaid internships. I was specifically concerned with how the over-use of highly-skilled interns as temp workers is degrading the workplace, forcing energetic youngsters to hop from job to job with little training and even less security.

I see the heavily sought-after internship as a form of glorified exploitation in which recent college and university graduates and those attempting to enter a new field are promised experience and an “in,” when in reality they are offered little more than hours of paper filing and coffee making, albeit under the guise of a fancy title to adorn their resume, a document that increasingly necessitates a competitive edge if one is to bag yet another internship that promises opportunity and a future and yada yada. It’s an endless cycle, and as a young worker keeping my nose just above the water, I am exhausted by it.

I want to continue on with this theme of exploitation within internships, this time by focusing on the non-profit world’s heavily reliance upon unpaid positions. In most ways, internships are used in the same way in this industry as in any other, with young workers looked to as a way to get projects done cheaply and fast. But non-profits have a special ownership over the justification of the (ab)use of interns.

Because many of them are under-staffed and under-funded, but focusing on the Great Ills of the world (poverty, health, environmental degradation, women’s rights, what have you), interns are looked to as a way to get work done that otherwise would be impossible with such limited cash. Because these organizations are looked to as Doing Good—and often they are addressing genuinely serious social ills, and should be commended for this—their extreme dependence on The Internship is overlooked, considered a small necessary evil and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

What’s more, interns themselves are made to feel privileged to work within such a lofty, high-minded world, where highly intelligent people are doing their best to save our fast-sinking planet. Whatever it takes to get the work done, the logic goes. Anything for the cause.

While I can understand non-profits’ need for interns (and have, on several occasions, acted as the intern in question), there are some serious, hypocritical problems that emerge from such a system. Firstly: the question of exploitation, and specifically workers’ rights. Many of these non-profits hold the golden keywords “social justice” as central to their work. Their mission statements claim that they are focused on equality and fair treatment above all else, that every person has the right to a decent livelihood and adequate working conditions. And yet, apparently in order to achieve such lofty goals, they argue that, unfortunately, they must go against their organization’s morals, under-paying or offering no economic compensation for the hard work of youngsters who have little or no rights and protection in this ruthless, competitive world of titles and names and increasingly lengthy CVs. This is not prefigurative politics, but a perpetuation of the exploitation so many non-profits state that they are adamantly against. Rather than attempting to fix that system from the inside, by treating their workers as they argue that all should be treated, they simply say “sorry,” throwing their hands up. “We’re working within a broken system, and we’re doing what we can.”

Secondly: the issue of who has access to such positions. In a definitive act of irony, by offering little or no economic compensation to interns, the internship positions at social justice non-profits are often filled with young, upper-middle class white kids, who, in order to take a job that doesn’t paid, are supported by their family’s income or grants obtained through their universities. They are not filled by the people that these organizations claim to represent and be fighting for, namely lower-income people, people of colour, and those with few access to resources and little way to exercise their rights. A person with student loans or a family to feed cannot easily take an unpaid position, especially one that requires long hours and several months’ commitment, as many such internships often do. As such, those who truly understand and are impacted by the meaning of the words “social justice” are further marginalized by non-profits that claim to be bettering the world on their behalf. Painfully, a rose-coloured version of “the white man’s burden” is created, in which young white kids are helping older white folks save a poor black man from police brutality, or a First Nations person from poor education. Of course, if one looks only a little closer, both of these issues have to do directly with lack of access to resources; but again, the logic goes that some ills are justified in order for some sort of ideal greater good to be achieved. Perversely, in doing so, the greater picture is severely overlooked, allowing unequal, ineffective societies and systems to continue.

One need not look further than the influx of non-Louisianans to New Orleans post-Katrina; or of North Americans flocking to Africa in light of the AIDS crisis; or even the use and abuse of under-paid, uncontracted interns within unions to see this irony, staring us all right in the face.

What are we going to do about it?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    February 7, 2010 1:57 pm

    Hey AC,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I must say I had never heard of a potential employer not considering an internship “full work experience.” While not surprising, this troubles me personally given the smattering of internships that line my CV. Furthermore, I do agree with you that interns need to be informed of this before deciding whether to take an unpaid but “prestigious” position or continuing to toil away in a coffee shop.

    What if we take a page from the book of organized labour, and stage an “Interns Unite” protest? My thought is that any sort of collective action simply wouldn’t fly, not only because interns are perpetually busy looking for another position, but because as I mentioned in my post, these spots are primarily filled with upper-middle income youth, who are often financially supported by their families or independent grants to take such work. They know that it’s an unfair situation, but simply aren’t impacted enough to take a stand. Maybe if health care reform in the U.S. truly does fail, young people will further feel the double whammy of no paid work compounded by a faltering safety net, and a movement will begin to form.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    February 5, 2010 8:36 am

    I think you’re right to point out the irony of non-profit organisations banging on about “social justice” while simultaneously exploiting their own work force. The cloak of sanctity surrounding organisations that can plausibly claim to be Doing Good sometimes covers up a lot of problems – just look at the Catholic Church. Aside from the issue of internships, I sometimes wonder if individual non-profits use their morally exalted status to avoid the tough but necessary questions about whether their operations (however well intentioned) are really as efficient and effective as they should be.

    • February 6, 2010 7:31 am

      Thanks for these two entries on internships. Having done my share of internships, I have come to similar realizations and appreciate your insights.

      The first step in my mind is to raise awareness just like you are doing. Those considering whether to intern with such organizations need to know the hard facts about what is involved. For example, many employers will not count internship as full work experience. When I interned with a UN body this summer, they told us that if we apply to work with them, they would halve total time that we worked as interns, when calculating our total work experience. I think that preparing an honest account of just what it means to intern would be the single greatest step that we could take.

      Beyond that, the best thing to do would be to work with these organizations with such information in the hopes that they will respond to the identified concerns. Where that does not work, shame is the best option: these organizations depend upon their reputations so if these opinions are loud enough, they would have to address them. Another interesting possibility would be to develop a system of accreditation.

      The problem is that most options demand the organization of a body of people who are spread out all over the place and who are for the most part being replaced by others. The fact of the matter is that for most people it is just not worth their time to stand up and work on this issue; they need to spend that time finding some way of getting an actual job.

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