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Thompson: Unpaid internships are unethical, unfair

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board. This article was originally published online on Aug. 26, 2019.

I was browsing a company website when I came across two separate tabs — “volunteer with us” and “available internships.”

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But in reality, what’s the difference? Both volunteers and interns donate their time and energy to helping an organization for no pay, ingraining a culture of accepting low-paying or nonexistent wages into Generation Z from the get-go.

First established in the 1940s, internships became the gateway to industry. However, it wasn’t a fairly large market to begin with because most people didn’t go to college. By the 1970s, more people attended college than ever before, which increased the competitiveness of the job market. Those with a college degree increased from about 10% to roughly 33% of the population.

While everyone who works as an employee has the right to a minimum wage, interns need only be informed that they will not be receiving a wage in order to justify being unpaid. This loophole was established after the Supreme Court ruled that a company didn’t have to pay railway brakemen for their training program roughly a week long.

Unpaid interns receive no benefits, no legal protection against harassment or discrimination and no job security. They are an integral part of generating revenue for companies, yet more often than not, these opportunities are unpaid. The labor of millennials and Gen Z is being exploited. The longer it happens, low-paying jobs are further normalized, and wealth inequality will continue to grow.

The reality of the situation is that most internships do not offer an advantage to students.

According to Karl Marx, labor is a commodity that is bought and sold on the market. In exchange, laborers get a wage. The experience has now been warped to mean that students are trading time for experience, which is marketed to be more valuable than monetary compensation.

Some might argue that an unpaid internship is worth it for the experience. The reality of the situation is that most internships do not offer an advantage to students. In fact, the only “advantage” they offer is taking advantage of vulnerable students.

Sure, there are paid internships. Those ones are generally more accessible to students with the resources available to prepare them for what is essentially an entry-level job. The reality is that only wealthier students benefit from unpaid internships.

The only people who can work for free are precisely those who don’t need an internship because they do not face other barriers to entry in industries. Non-paying jobs also drive down the cost of labor. There is less incentive for employers to pay people if someone else is willing to work for free. Maybe what we need is another labor revolution.

We are living in one of the richest countries in the history of the world. There is no excuse for unpaid labor.

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Madison Thompson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online @madisongoeswest.

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