The season of applying for summer internships is upon us, and with it come questions about the legality of these positions. Many will be unpaid, forcing cash-strapped students to choose between valuable work experience and making enough money to pay rent. Last Monday, the Kalmanovitz Initiative and Georgetown Solidarity Committee co-hosted a panel of experts and activists who offered their unique insight on the lawfulness, economics, and ethics of unpaid internships. All things considered, their consensus was clear: Pay your interns.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships must meet very specific criteria, including that the employer providing the internship obtain no immediate advantage from the intern. Additionally, the work completed by an intern, which should be more akin to educational training than work, should not displace any employees and must be done for the benefit of the intern. Unfortunately, the unpaid internships taken on by many Georgetown students do not qualify as legal.
As unpaid internships become normalized throughout the world of work and interns grow accustomed to being exploited in this way, students become used to justifying them by claiming, for example, that the work experience gained from an internship is more valuable than the work gained by the employer. We can’t fail to acknowledge, however, that an intern’s energy, intelligence, and dedication are immediate advantages for an employer. And though acquiring experience may be the most important feature of an internship, students need to understand that it does not replace monetary compensation.
Thanks to the toxic professional culture that promotes this kind of self-degrading practice, the phenomenon of “permanent interns” is spreading. Students and recent graduates take internship after internship without demanding the pay that they are rightfully owed, leaving an educated, youthful workforce without health insurance or workplace protections from harms like sexual harassment. In addition to the minimum wage, these are hard-earned labor rights protected by the law for workers in any industry, for-profit or nonprofit, which are wrongly being undermined by the proliferation of unpaid internships.
This is not to mention the fundamental unfairness of this practice. Unpaid internships are financially accessible only to those who can afford to work for free, and in this way, they allow systemic socioeconomic inequalities to thrive.
Despite their questionable nature, unpaid internships are flourishing in our weakened economy. Georgetown students certainly make up a significant portion of the unpaid workforce in the District, and as such, the University should do more to protect its students from having their basic workers’ rights violated. Georgetown should not only be more supportive of students with internships by making it easier to receive credit, for example, but it should counteract the culture of unpaid internships by being proactive in informing students about their rights.
Most importantly, though, students must organize their voices and demand what they deserve: a safe and healthy working environment, valuable educational training, and fair pay.