Unpaid internships: costly experience?

By Bruff O’Reilly

For students and recent graduates, internships offer up one of the most attractive methods for gaining experience and contacts in a cut-throat job market. In many fields, internships represent a necessary stepping stone to full, paid employment.

With young people finding it increasingly difficult to find entry-level jobs, this poses several worrying problems for young people. The growth in popularity and acceptance of unpaid internships enhances the risk that businesses will exploit the unemployed by using them to fill positions which had previously been paid, and also to further marginalise those who simply cannot afford to take advantage of unpaid work.

Sarah Gallagher, a Law and French student, worked in an unpaid internship this summer for a reputable, midsized law firm. “I would say that a lot of the work I did could easily have been done by someone without a law degree,” she said, referring to filing and photocopying. But she was still overtly positive about the experience: “It definitely opened my eyes to the realities of a legal career.”

She felt that ultimately, the trade-off of doing legal grunt work was more than worth it for the contacts made, and a handful of “brilliant” experiences. Her position is typical of many students, who are often willing to forego a wage in order to gain experience and connections within their chosen field.

But as the number of unpaid internships grows, there will be more and more people forced to forego valuable experiences – in favor of finding paid work – due to their economic circumstance. The people who are often hurt most by the growth of unpaid internships are those who cannot take advantage of them. While some young people are able to lean on family and friends for accommodation and living expenses, many are not so fortunate and are forced to find employment in jobs which do not offer up any relevant experience for their chosen field.

Unpaid internships therefore create a situation in which the more privileged are able to utilise their comfortable positions to gain an unfair advantage over their lesser privileged peers, further perpetuating inequality.

The UK’s Institute of Public Policy Research recently released an article entitled “Why Interns Need a Fair Wage,” in which they argue that “the difficulties that young people from less affluent backgrounds face in accessing internships represents an unfairness for the individual and potentially a waste of talent if an able young person is denied the chance to enter their chosen occupation,” and continue that “it also adds to the existing patterns of inequalities in both economic well-being and power by helping to ensure that certain occupations and sectors remain dominated by people from particular backgrounds.”

Alma Clissmann, Project Manager at the Irish Law Reform Commission, a government orginisation that has recently been forced to replace paid researcher assistants with unpaid interns, was realistic in her assessment of the growth of unpaid internships. She commented that while there may be exploitation by some organisations, many are simply trying to cope with the influx of untrained, unpaid workers who are not tied down to their jobs through a formal wage.

Clissmann felt that it was up to employers of interns to ensure that there be “a fair exchange of benefits in any arrangement.” She was aware of the systemic problem of only offering unpaid internships, but was keen to stress that many internships should not be viewed as full employment, but as stop-gap measures between paid employment opportunities. She also noted that the Irish government was trying to ameliorate the inequality caused by unpaid internships, and that FÁS has organised a scheme whereby people do not lose their social support should they engage in a work placement or internships.

Ultimately, Clissmann felt that it was down to both the employer and employee to try and negotiate terms which were favourable to both parties, including “free to leave at short notice” clauses in internship contracts. Unpaid internships present an obvious dilemma to young people. While obviously favouring those from certain backgrounds, they also provide one of the only ways of gaining experience and contacts in certain career fields. It is the responsibility of the government and labour regulators to be aware of the conduct of companies and organisations with their interns, and to help protect people who are working without a wage.

Students and other young people are particularly vulnerable, but it also their responsibilty to avoid being taken advantage of by setting their terms accordingly.