Internships are important. They’re a longstanding and respectable way for new workers to cut their teeth on a trade, gaining real world contacts and work experience. But lately there’s been an overindulgence in the internship economy with class action lawsuits flying around against companies that took undue advantage of cheap labor. Some responsible organizations like CBS and Viacom are trying to get out ahead of the controversy, signing on to an Intern Bill of Rights crafted by internmatch.com.
The bill of rights outlines a clear set of expectations for employers and the rights interns should expect, things like:
- “All interns should be provided an offer document, recognizing their role within a company.”
- “The word intern should only be applied to opportunities that involve substantial training, mentoring, and getting to know a line of work.”
Internmatch.com is a self-described “online ecosystem” focused on helping students find internships. They provide resources, intern matches, and help students find socially responsible positions. The organization crafted the Intern Bill of Rights to bring a bit more justice to the internship process.
For the past few years, there’s been a greater shift toward internships as they become the main point of entry to job experience for many young workers and older workers changing to a new career path. When the U.S. economy tanked in 2008, a whole generation of younger workers just entering the workforce out of college found themselves with few chances to actually gain real world career experience. Or any work experience at all, for that matter. So they turned to internships, often unpaid.
On the other side of the jobs equation, recession-whipped employers went on the lookout for free labor to keep their doors open and stay competitive.
A match made in heaven, right? Folks desperate for work experience and employers desperate for competitive labor scrambled to find each other. Ahh, love. Unfortunately for the interns, the employers have the power in this scenario. And quite a few took advantage of it. Fox and Hearst had class action lawsuits filed against them for exploitative use of cheap or free workers. Heck, even Huffington Post has its share of controversy from its overuse of free writers and designers.
As intern use spreads and replaces previous models for gaining experience, there’s an urgent need for well maintained standards.
The U.S. Department of Labor has been trying to stay ahead of this trend as well. In 2010, they released a fact sheet for “Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act.” It helps businesses determine the criteria for when an intern must be paid. Where the internship bill of rights goes beyond the Deparment of Labor guidelines is in the actual treatment of interns. For example, it states that ”All interns should be treated with respect and dignity by coworkers and supervisors.”
We’ve entered a new era in the job market. It’s largely uncharted territory. As always, workers need to defend their rights. And responsible companies, like CBS and Viacom, need to stand behind them.