I see that some American states are starting to investigate the use of interns as unpaid labor. All I can say is that it’s long overdue.
So far as I’m concerned, most companies that use interns are like John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” in the mid-1700s. Contrary to a popular misconception, Newton did not become a Christian and write the hymn, then turn against his job in the slave trade; instead, after writing the hymn, he remained both a Christian and a slaver for two decades before coming out against the slave trade.
Too often, companies are like Newton on a smaller scale when they hire interns. They may be environmentally conscious and contribute to charities in their communities, but their labor practices make them hypocrites hiding behind conventional business practices.
Understand, I am not talking about programs like Google’s Summer of Code that give small stipends to students who would otherwise be unpaid volunteers. Still less am I talking about companies who hire co-op students at proper entry level salaries, or about genuine apprentice programs. What I am talking about are companies that hire the young and aspiring for full-time work at far below what they would pay a new employee — if they pay them at all — while pretending that they are giving them something special.
The argument used to justify such internships is that those chosen gain valuable job experience. Moreover, because interns are generally untrained, their employers often argue that they require experienced employees to watch over them and redo their work if necessary.
However, the same arguments could be applied to new employees. In most jurisdictions, the fact that someone is a new employee is not grounds for denying them a living wage, so why should the same argument be considered valid for interns? In entry-level positions, new employees are often no more trained than interns are. New employees may receive a smaller salary while on probation, but even so they generally receive enough to live on.
When I was chief steward for the Teaching Assistant’s union at Simon Fraser University, we had a basic negotiating principle: a fair days’ work for a fair day’s pay. That is not the least socialistic (not that there’s anything wrong with that so far as I’m concerned; I can belt out “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “Solidarity Forever,” and a lot of the rest of Utah Phillip’s repetoire). Rather, it’s an insistence that our semi-capitalistic system live up to its own principles. Employees who are producing acceptable work for you deserve to be paid the going rate for that work; if their work is not acceptable, you fire them. The exchange of labor is as simple as that, and there is no excuse for making an exception for interns.
The real reason for underpaying interns — as if anyone couldn’t guess — becomes obvious when you notice that many companies delay filling full-time positions until after the interns have left at the end of August, or hire more interns than full-time staff. Such cases make clear that interns are simply a cheaper (or free) pair of hands. When you keep this reason in mind, all the the pious claims of helping interns by giving them experience becomes the modern equivalent of claims that 19th Century slaves were housed and fed better than in their homelands, or benefited from exposure to Christianity. All these claims are simply excuses for unethical business practices that conventional morality chooses to ignore because they are convenient.
True, some companies eventually hire the best of their interns. But only a handful of interns are ever so lucky. Besides, companies might as well ask new employees to pay a premium for their position, because, by giving a company cheap labor, that is basically what interns are doing when they are later hired as regular employees. No matter how you look at it, the fact that some interns are hired full-time doesn’t justify internships any more than the fact that diligent slaves were sometimes freed justifies slavery. Interns may be better off than slaves (although, considering what I’ve heard about certain gaming companies, I sometimes wonder), but the scope of the ethical dodginess doesn’t change the basic situation.
Low-paying internships would be objectionable under any circumstance. However, what makes them worse is the pretense that they are anything other than a cost-saver. At least if companies would say, “We hire interns because we save money that way,” an honest discussion could take place. But, instead, they hide what they are doing by claiming that they are the benefactors rather than exploiters.
This claim is an ethical dodge that Newton would have understood. But at least he eventually saw his own contradiction. There are few signs that, left to themselves, companies that exploit interns ever will.