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Are unpaid internships really an option for all candidates? Or do they favor the financially capable and take away opportunities from disadvantaged applicants?

December 13, 2017

Society Pays for Unpaid Internships

By Patrick Aana

Patrick Aana is a Human Rights Scholar at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice and a member of the 2017-2018 Working Paper Series Editorial Committee. 

Unpaid internships are often criticized for taking advantage of students and recent graduates who are expected to contribute labor without compensation. But under another paradigm, unpaid interns are the lucky ones—many potential candidates cannot even consider such positions because they lack the funds to support themselves throughout the experience. This class-based disparity is worrying, especially considering that internships are increasingly determinative of future job opportunities and that unpaid positions are more prevalent than ever.[1] The unequal access inherent in unpaid internships has led some to call for their prohibition, criticizing them not only for exploiting young workers but also for perpetuating inequality across generations.[2] These criticisms are particularly relevant to the public and nonprofit sectors, where internships are more likely to be unpaid than paid,[3] and to international institutions like the United Nations where internships indirectly affect relationships among future generations of world leaders. But requiring that all internships be paid positions will not necessarily increase opportunities available to less privileged candidates; other solutions should also be considered to ensure that barriers to such positions are effectively addressed.

In 2015, unpaid internships drew scrutiny when David Hyde, a 22-year old United Nations intern, apparently unable to afford rent in Geneva, was discovered living in a tent.[4] The proliferation of unpaid internships has seen rapid growth in international institutions like the UN, where the number of unpaid interns each year has increased from 131 in 1996 to over 4,000 in recent years, most of whom serve in the high-cost cities of Geneva and New York.[5] Hyde admits that he falsely confirmed to interviewers that he would be able to support himself in Geneva, but claims that he was only driven to do so when telling the truth about his circumstances led to several rejections.[6] His report highlights the troubling implications of unpaid internships: candidates must reveal their socioeconomic status, meaning that one’s personal financial situation becomes a condition for gaining employment. Since a disproportionate number of interns at the UN are from developed countries, one cannot ignore the likelihood that many qualified candidates around the world (and especially in the Global South) self-select out of applying.[7]

In the United States, unpaid internships are subject to some regulation, but they are generally acceptable in public service organizations. The US Department of Labor (DoL) applies six criteria when determining whether or not an unpaid intern is actually entitled to minimum wage and overtime.[8] While this test allows unpaid internships to exist in the private sector, it subjects them to scrutiny. But because it is difficult to enforce, its effectiveness is dubious.[9] In contrast to the theoretical scrutiny of private firms, the DoL sympathizes with public service organizations that may not have the capacity to compensate individuals who may opt to volunteer their time regardless, considering unpaid work to be “generally permissible” in the public and nonprofit sector “where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation.”[10]

But as a matter of policy, should we accept unpaid internships in public service organizations as more palatable? Regulations like those seen in the US attempt to address the problem of exploitation,[11] but they do not address the inequality that unpaid internships appear to perpetuate. Even if an unpaid internship does not exploit the individual intern, it can exclude those who cannot afford to work without an income. Should exposure to nonprofit or government work be limited to those with the means to work for weeks or months at a time without making money? While it is these public service organizations that often lack the resources to compensate, they, most of all, should be inclusive—on principle and to better serve their communities.

Reasoning that unpaid internships are damaging to social mobility, official calls to end them are beginning to emerge.[12] In October 2017, the United Kingdom’s Social Mobility Commission released a study showing that a majority of Britons supported a ban on long-term unpaid internships.[13] The chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, described unpaid internships as a “modern scandal which must end,” stating that “young people from low income backgrounds are excluded because they are unpaid. They miss out on a great career opportunity and employers miss out from a wider pool of talent. Unpaid internships are damaging for social mobility. It is time to consign them to history.”[14] Even on an international level, European Union ombudsman Emily O’Reilly called for the European External Action Service to pay all of its almost 800 interns so as to “allow greater access for young people of all backgrounds.”[15] Corroborating what many firms have indicated about their preference for hiring graduates with internships, O’Reilly remarked that such internships “can be a significant stepping stone in young people’s careers and should be available to as broad a range of people as possible.”[16]

However, an outright ban on unpaid internships seems unlikely to improve the opportunities accessible to young people.[17] It is likely that a resulting smaller supply or higher demand in these positions will still disadvantage those of lower economic means.[18] Similar to arguments made on the issue of the minimum wage, organizations may have no choice but to offer fewer positions, and those internships that are still available will still be more likely to go to students with better networks and an elite-university education.

There are other ways of increasing accessibility of these positions without increasing the financial pressure on the host organization, such as providing a universal basic income[19] or fundraising from third parties. Interns may be able to obtain stipends and grants from the host organization, or from universities and third-party foundations as well.[20]

Though no landmark changes have been implemented at the UN since Hyde was discovered in his tent, it is worth noting that the International Labor Organization, more than a decade ago, decided to pay its interns after one was found sleeping in the basement.[21] The UN as a whole should follow suit, but the organization claims that it does not have the resources to pay interns and that mandating paid internships requires authorization from member nations.[22] Perhaps a quota system, parallel to that already in place in its hiring practices but unfortunately not replicable in local and national organizations, would make these positions more accessible and ensure proper representation of young people around the world.

Unpaid internships enable privilege to follow privilege and limit the career opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Change is desperately needed and simply ending unpaid internships may not be the best solution. The problem is especially striking at the United Nations, an institution that should represent the height of integrity and rights-based practices given its organizational mandate. Currently, the UN’s unpaid internships marginalize developing countries and thus undermine the organization’s moral appeal and institutional legitimacy instead of promoting international inclusion and equity. Perhaps the more prudent question to ask is not whether unpaid interns should be compensated, but how can they be compensated in a way that reduces obstacles and elevates future generations.



[1] Cf. Generation i, The Economist (Sept. 12, 2014), https://www.economist.com/news/international/21615612-temporary-unregulated-and-often-unpaid-internship-has-become-route; Jamie Doward and Matilda Munro, Poorer Graduates struggle for jobs as unpaid internships soar, The Guardian (April 15, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/15/unpaid-internships-soar-poorer-graduates-struggle-ippr-study (describing the growth of internships as a whole as well the increasing use of unpaid positions).

[2] See generally Rob Davies and Elena Cresci, Growth in unpaid full-time internships raises fears for social mobility, The Guardian (April 21, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/apr/21/growth-in-unpaid-full-time-internships-raises-fears-for-social-mobility.

[3] Kate Newman, For interns at nonprofits, don’t expect a paycheck, Aljazeera America (Aug. 25, 2014), http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/25/nonprofit-interns.html.

[4] Aisha Gani, Unpaid UN intern who slept in tent quits after media uproar, The Guardian (Aug. 12, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/12/unpaid-un-intern-who-had-to-sleep-in-a-tent-quits-after-media-uproar.

[5] Brandon Jordan, Why Doesn’t the United Nations Pay Its Interns?, The Nation (March 10, 2017), https://www.thenation.com/article/why-doesnt-the-united-nations-pay-its-interns/.

[6] Aisha Gani, supra note 4.

[7] Cf. Brandon Jordan, supra note 5 (noting almost as many interns came from France as those from all African nations).

[8] Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (April 2010), https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

[9] Steven Greenhouse, The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not, The New York Times (April 2, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/business/03intern.html.

[10] Fact Sheet #71, supra note 8.

[11] See id (including “similar to training” and “for the benefit of the intern,” among the Department of Labor’s criteria for unpaid internships).

[12] Social Mobility Commission, Unpaid internships are damaging to social mobility (Oct. 23, 2017), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/unpaid-internships-are-damaging-to-social-mobility.

[13] Kevin Rawlinson, Public backs ban on long-term unpaid internships, study finds, The Guardian (Oct 23, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/oct/23/public-backs-ban-on-long-term-unpaid-internships-social-mobility-commission.

[14] Id.

[15] Aleksandra Eriksson, EU foreign service should pay its interns, EU watchdog says, EUobserver (Feb. 17, 2017), https://euobserver.com/social/136937.

[16] Id.; see also Generation i, supra note 1 (discussing the growth of internships as a hiring pipeline for organizations).

[17] Darren Walker, Internships Are Not a Privilege, The New York Times (July 5, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/05/opinion/breaking-a-cycle-that-allows-privilege-to-go-to-privileged.html (noting that “while compensating interns is necessary, it is not sufficient.”).

[18] See generally Kate Newman, supra note 3.

[19] Sirena Bergman, If you really care about social mobility, you won’t support paying interns, Independent (Oct. 23, 2017), http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/social-mobility-paying-interns-rich-poor-divide-income-workplace-dont-support-a8015171.html.

[20] See, e.g., Darren Walker, supra note 19; Anemona Hartocollis, When Internships Don’t Pay, Some Colleges Will, The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/education/edlife/paid-internships-colleges-social-service.html.

[21] Brandon Jordan, supra note 5.

[22] Id.

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary