Gap Inc. has recently announced that it is doubling the size of its paid internship program. Last month, the retailer claimed 1,200 teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 in North America and the United Kingdom will work at selected stores this summer. With the program expanding to the Miami and Vancouver areas this year, at least 300 Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores are now participating in this 10-week program.
This news may puzzle workers’ rights advocates and critics of unpaid internships, who are quick to remind us that minimum wage laws exist in the first place. Nevertheless, shifts in consumers’ shopping habits are making even retail jobs more difficult to land. And in other sectors, the role of interns has come under closer scrutiny in recent years. The 2013 death of Moritz Erhardt after working a 72-hour shift for Bank of America Merrill Lynch caused an even louder outcry over what opponents of this working system say are rife with abuse, whether or not these workers are paid. Many banks responded to Erhardt’s passing with clearer internship policies. Goldman Sachs announced that interns’ days would be capped at 17 hours.
One criticism of unpaid internships is that they are often the privilege of kids from wealthier families which have the means to support their children while they work for free at well-known companies. A 2010 study, however, cast doubt on that assumption, and concluded that students and workers from lower-income families often found themselves more likely to work in an unpaid internship. But to muddy the internship waters even more, three surveys conducted earlier this decade suggested that these unpaid job assignments did not necessarily create an advantage for young workers once they were ready to enter the job market.
Many college students and younger workers, however, feel compelled to sign up for a paid or even unpaid internship in order to stand out in a hyper-competitive job market. And at the same time, many employers are not going to refuse low-cost or volunteer labor. This problem is endemic within the sustainable business world – as anybody in this space would know, judging by the number of emails that can accumulate in one’s inbox with the suggestion “let’s collaborate!” (collaborate the dog whistle expression that means, “can you work for free?).
Companies such as Gap are wise to pay their interns, as unpaid positions can turn into a slippery slope for employers in the event someone becomes disgruntled about his employment situation. According to the Department of Labor, there are six criteria allowing a for-profit company to bring on unpaid labor. Those exemptions include training akin to what would be received in an educational environment; work experience that benefits the intern professionally; an intern may not displace paid employees; and that worker is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship period (in order to counter any promise of a future job in exchange for unpaid labor). Despite those vague parameters, employers should still proceed with caution. “It’s fair to say most private-sector employers who employ volunteers are violating the law,” said David Yamada, a Suffolk University law professor in an interview with ProPublica.
Programs such as the one Gap operates are a more structured and productive way to train potential employees while improving the company’s reputation. Gap claims workers participating in this plan tend to work well with colleagues and if they are hired, stay with the company twice as long as other employees. In addition, Gap says it partners with local non-profits so that these participants can benefit from resume writing skills, time management and leadership training. In total, the company says it expects 10,000 young workers to benefit from this program by 2020.
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