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Get the Facts! Is an Unpaid Internship Exploitation?

For young people, the job market today is riddled with challenges, especially where internships are concerned. Some internships pay a small stipend, while others offer nothing more than the chance to gain experience on the job. Either way, an internship is a powerful way for an ambitious young worker to prove their worth in an actual job setting. Most young college students get into internships with the hope that they will translate into job opportunities with that organization in the future.

However, the question that’s on every young person’s mind when considering an internship is whether this is just another way to become cheap or free labor for a big company?

Trends in Youth Unemployment and Internships

According to the most recent research gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2014, youth unemployment is at an unprecedented high. For 16-19 year olds, around 15 to 27 percent of all young people polled are working in some kind of assignment (paid or unpaid), with 20-24 year olds between 30 to 63.9 percent working. The entry-level job has done a disappearing act as a growing number of older workers have been forced to take on lower paying jobs to remain employed during post-recession conditions.

Today, there exists a whole generation of young college students who are being crushed by debt, delaying traditional milestones of adulthood. This has forced then to remain living with their parents and being somewhat unable to become contributing members of society. Therefore, unpaid summer internships may seem like an appealing way to get a foot in the door to a professional career that will lead to long-lasting career success.

Keep in mind also that many influential and lucrative professions in media, politics and entertainment (to name a few) require hiring interns for unpaid positions. For young people who want to break into these types of careers, there may be no other way to gain entry at all. While this experience-garnering activity many have been well intentioned to begin with, it is now slowly leading to the rise of a subculture of unpaid labor.

Facts and Guidelines about Unpaid Internships

According to a factsheet released by the US Department of Labor, there is a list of guidelines to help for-profit businesses identify whether interns should be paid or not. In this way, interns can be guaranteed that their efforts will be rewarded and that they will not be taken for granted. Likewise, companies can be sure they are offering valid learning opportunities for interns.

There are 6 general criteria that need to be to be examined:

  1. The internship is similar in nature to any training that would be provided in an educational environment, despite the fact that it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer
  2. The experience of the internship is for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern works under the supervision of the existing staff, and does not displace regular employees
  4. The employer that provides the training from the activities of the intern derives no immediate advantages. There are times when its operations are actually impended
  5. The intern may or may not be entitled to a job after the internship is done.
  6. An understanding must be reached by both the intern and the employer about the entitlement of wages for the time spent at the internship

The internship boom has many other broader effects, such as restricted social and professional mobility, a less diverse economy as well as growing inequality. One main work ethic is under threat: that a hard day’s work deserves fair remuneration.

How to Determine if You are being Exploited as an Unpaid Intern

Unfortunately, there are some organizations that use unpaid interns as a cheap or free labor source without meeting these guidelines. These are the companies who usually cause exploitation and end up in the news – making other companies who offer internships get a “bad rap”.

Here are some ways you can tell whether you are being the victim of exploitation in your internship:

Feeling overwhelmed?

If you are being exploited, you may find yourself trying to juggle seemingly impossible tasks at one time. If you feel increasingly overwhelmed, you might be getting exploited. There is something wrong with the picture if your company is piling its burdens onto your shoulders. Talk to the Human Resource director there about assigning you tasks that you can manage better with your studies and personal life.

Made to do menial tasks?

If you feel that you are just being used for menial tasks like picking up people’s dry cleaning or making coffee for the rest of the office crew, you aren’t really putting your capabilities to good use. An internship should be helping you to tap into your talents, not turning you into the office maid. If you aren’t really learning anything substantial or related to your education, you might be getting exploited.

Undertaking tasks similar to fulltime paid workers?

If you find yourself doing tasks that a current paid employee has been hired to do, you might be getting exploited.  Additionally, interns are not to be used as a replacement for paid employee leaves or to reduce overtime pay for other paid workers.

If you recognize some of the above symptoms of exploitation as an unpaid intern, your duty as a college student is to go see your advisor and discuss the matter in person. Either find another more rewarding internship, or simply take on a paid temporary assignment so you can earn as you learn new skills. Never settle for anything less as a life-long learner. 

Image Credit: © nyul -

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