Earlier this month, Minal Caron—a contributor to this website—wrote a valuable piece about the phenomenon of the unpaid internship, particularly as it pertains to the for-profit private sector.  He made the accurate observation that:

If unpaid internships are allowed to persist [in their present form], employers will continue to have a strong incentive to re-brand the division of labor within their businesses, replacing paid internships and/or full-time jobs with unpaid internships to save on labor costs.  In this tough economic climate, employers have an even greater incentive to use unpaid labor, because there is a larger pool of students and employees who cannot find work, and many of these people will work for free in hopes of turning the unpaid work into a full-time job or believing that the resume addition will make it easier to find a job elsewhere.

The problem with the use of the unpaid internship by for-profit entities is not that it is unfair as such, but that it is hard to expect businesses not to take advantage of young (and not so young) people who are prepared to give away their labor for nothing, and who lack the confidence to stand up for themselves if they sense that they are being manipulated.  The obvious fact that unpaid internships create opportunities for exploitation raises the equally obvious question of how exploitation should be defined.  What is it, in other words, that stands to render an unpaid internship in the for-profit sector exploitative?  Here is perhaps the simplest and least controversial answer: an unpaid internship in the for-profit sector is exploitative if it involves either deception on the part of the employer or a failure by the employer to provide the intern with meaningful training or education.  A fair unpaid internship, conversely, is one in which the terms of the internship are clear to both employer and employee and the employee receives education or training that is of tangible value to her.  If for-profit entities want unpaid interns, they should be prepared to describe, openly and in writing, what it is that they will do for the latter.

Sadly, the fact that unpaid internships are liable to be exploitative does not rouse the many high school and college students who understand that these internships are likely to be unfair, but who nonetheless believe that they have to participate in such affairs if they want to climb the socioeconomic ladder.  If I tell an ambitious college senior that he should think twice before working 25 hours a week for the promise of “connections” or letters of recommendation, he will likely respond that I don’t understand how the “system” works, or that I’ve forgotten just how difficult it is out there in the job market.  The feeling that unpaid internships are likely to be unfair is simply not compelling enough to stop hard-working young people, many of whom are uncertain about their professional prospects, from seeking out such positions.  Too many young people are willing to enter into relationships with employers that, try as one might, can’t be described without the term “exploitation.”  This economic reality is a function of basic psychological dynamics: fear and desperation produce docility, which in turn creates opportunities for unfair treatment.

Caron’s response to this quandary is vigorous enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by the U.S. Department of Labor (under the FLSA, most unpaid internships in the for-profit private sector are illegal and persist only because of a lack of enforcement).  Caron is right to point out that even those unpaid interns who believe that their rights have been violated by their employers are not likely to pursue a remedy.  It is only the rare student, after all, who’s not intimidated by the prospect of disobeying those who seem to guard the gates of career advancement.  There may thus be a real need, as Caron indicates, for the Department of Labor to step in.

One of the standard arguments against enforcing the FLSA in the unpaid internship context is that doing so smacks of paternalism, i.e., that stopping people from joining for-profits as unpaid interns interferes with some concept of economic freedom.  This argument is an instance of the more general view that one has no right, morally speaking, to tell another that he is being exploited; if the medieval farmer gives a percentage of his crop to the local pastor because he believes he’ll meet hellfire if he fails to do so, it would be wrong for his neighbor (on this view) to tell him that he may be being abused.  A related point of view, one that can be found in some strands of libertarian political theory, is that it is simply incoherent to say that a person is being exploited unless she believes that exploitation is taking place.  Both of the aforesaid views are untenable; it is not a requirement of exploitation that it be recognized by the person experiencing it.

The argument that enforcing the FLSA reflects a paternalistic impulse is equally feeble, because the decision of any student to accept an unpaid and non-educational internship in the private sector has repercussions beyond the confines of his own situation.  By consenting to work for nothing, one encourages employers to set the bar of compensation and respect for employees ever lower.  The proliferation of internships that neither pay a wage nor provide meaningful training begets a race to the bottom and encourages our culture to accept unremunerated work as a normal part of social life—this is sufficient reason to discard the view that the intern’s choice to work for free is none of the public’s business.  How employees allow employers to treat them is very much a public matter. 

There is no reason, moreover, why the response to the problem of exploitative internships should be limited to legal remedies.  Just as public schools and community organizations sometimes teach young people to identify and avoid abusive romantic relationships, so our public schools might develop simple programs to teach students to identify and exit unfair conditions of employment.  The alternative is a job market in which people are ready to feed the mouth that bites them.