It’s summertime, which means long hot days, family vacations, and, for many college students, summer internships. Although most internships moved online this year because of Covid, many aspects of internships need to be addressed. Specifically, the question of whether unpaid internships are ethical or not.
Companies think of them as a win-win—they get free labor while eager young students leave with experience and connections in the field that they hope to pursue. But when looking solely through this idealistic corporate standpoint, you often lose sight of the red flags and privilege that comes with unpaid internships.
An unpaid internship is capitalist exploitation at its finest. You’re expected to give them an equivalent amount of hours to a part- or full-time job with no financial compensation. Branded as an opportunity to learn and make connections, they can often require you to run errands or do mundane tasks for hours on end. With student debt piling up, how are students supposed to choose between advancing in their career or paying off their debt and other expenses?
Unpaid internships have been on a steady decline, but their numbers are still nowhere close to ideal. According to the Harvard Business Review, research has found that 43% of internships done for for-profit companies are unpaid. This means that close to half of all internships at these types of organizations are inaccessible to students who cannot afford to not get paid for a summer, whereas their wealthier counterparts have access to them all.
Students who need a job to pay for apartments, food, or their college tuition are punished both short and long term. Internships are highly sought after, as a college graduate with internship experience has double the odds of being engaged in their work over the course of their lifetime than graduates that have none. Unpaid internships aren’t only preventing low-income and underrepresented students from getting experience; they are preventing them from getting jobs.
Internships themselves, much like other systems in the United States, are perpetuating economic racial disparities. Among those who have internships, white students are more likely to be paid, Black students are more likely to be unpaid, and Latinx students are more likely to not even have an internship at all, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Furthermore, since 53% of all student internships are obtained through personal networks, students with family or personal connections already have an advantage. These personal connections are also more likely to lead to paid rather than unpaid internships. A student whose family is well connected will have an easier time than a first-generation college student will getting an internship and eventually, a job.
There is even a large disparity between fields. In areas such as social services, fashion, and journalism, the amount of unpaid internships are significantly higher than those in corporate jobs. This leads to fewer low-income and other underrepresented students being able to break into these sectors and get jobs. In order to get marginalized populations working in these predominantly white markets, we first need to address this major barrier.
For example, Anayasia Johnson is a first-generation college student at Howard University and is African American and Latinx. She hopes to work in the fashion industry but could not afford to take two unpaid internships that were offered to her. She said that she financially could not work a summer for free, as she has bills and other expenses. This, she believes, negatively impacted her professional career and closed many doors.
What we see happening here is a cycle of privilege that pushes lower-income and minority students out. Rich and predominantly white students have connections which lead to more internships. They can afford to not get paid for a summer or two and therefore take internships to form more connections and gain experience. They then go on to have more job offers in the career they pursue. Eventually, they have kids and their kids grow up with the same privileges they have. It goes on and on.
So how do we stop it? There has already been an increased push to stop unpaid internships due to their unethical and discriminatory nature, from widespread movements and petitions to individual lawsuits against corporations. But most of all, corporations need to step up and start paying their interns. They need to realize that if they want a student to do the equivalent of a full- or part-time job for a company, the student needs to get paid.
In a country with an ever-widening wealth gap, unpaid internships prove to be yet another obstacle for low-income and minority students. Unpaid internships work to keep those who cannot afford the luxury of being unpaid for a summer from spots in companies or from obtaining sought-after connections. Therefore, they must be put to an end if we ever hope to stop the cycle of privilege and give all students the opportunities they deserve.