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When Does Internship Become Labor Exploitation?

As the "intern economy" grows, young adults, unions, and other workers are starting to ask: When does an internship stop being a mutually beneficial experience and start being free or cheap labor? ProPublica is even kickstarting an investigative reporting project on the abuse of internships in America - with a nice sharing economy tie-in, they are using crowdfunding to pay the researchers.

So why are younger workers increasingly willing to work for free?

Unemployment among workers 16 to 24 is over 20 percent. That's the official (U3) unemployment rate which means it's only accounting for young adults actively looking for work. It doesn't include folks who have given up.

It gets worse. Youth unemployment has been exceptionally high since 2008. That's five years as of this writing. Five years is a long time for young people just entering the job market. By your early 20s, most employers already expect you to have had some meaningful work experience. But what if the employment opportunities simply didn't exist for most of your adult life? If you attempted to enter the work force in 2008 at the age of 16, you would have experienced a job market even worse than most older adults did during the Great Recession. Fast forward to 2013 - you're now 21 and you still have no significant work history.

It's important to realize that 21 to 25-year-olds out there have spent most of their adult lives in an crippling recession with very limited job opportunities. It shouldn't be too surprising that we'd see a growing number of twenty-somethings, and even older, willing to work for free just to gain work experience that may lead to employability. And that is what we're seeing.

Internships can be exactly that: a means to gain real world, professional work experience and make contacts in a chosen industry. However, employers can also easily take advantage of this source of free work.

Mikael Naramore, owner of Terrestrial Media, a media company in Muskegon, Michigan, has worked on both sides of the internship experience, as an intern and as an employer with an intern. "When I interned, I could dig in and explore my chosen career, learn on-the-job skills, and be exposed to top people in the field, which for me was way better than sitting in a classroom. I truly feel I'm the better for it."

When talking about exploitation of interns, Naramore said, "The point of interning is exposure to a professional environment. Including the professionals! Without that experience, it's just good old fashioned exploitation. It goes too far in my opinion when there's no oversight and the internment period is open-ended."

Some unions would agree with the comment about exploitation as they are turning their attention to the overuse of free labor, often from young workers eager to get into the workforce with their skills. Most notably, the Media Worker's Guild and the National Writer's Union's "Pay the Writer" campaign took aim at AOL/Huffington Post. Huffington Post has been criticized for its widespread use of "interns" or unpaid writing and design staff.

The U.S. Department of Labor has created a handy, informational page with updated rules and regulations regarding internships, particularly unpaid internships. This is useful for employers who want to make sure they are acting both ethically and legally. And, it's helpful for workers who want to protect their own interests.

Here are the USDL's six criteria for legal unpaid internships:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

[Photo Credit: stevendepolo - Source]
Eric Justian headshotEric Justian

Eric Justian is a professional writer living near the natural sugar sand beaches and singing sand dunes of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. When he's not wrangling his kids or tapping at his computer, he likes to putter in his garden, catch king salmon from the Big Lake, or go pan fishing with his boys. As a successful blogger his main focus has been energy, Great Lakes issues and local food. Eric is a founding member of the West Michgian Jobs Group, a non-profit organization that evolved from a Facebook page called Yest to West Michigan Wind Power which now has over 8000 followers. West Michigan Jobs Group promotes independent businesses and sustainable industries in the West Michigan area. As the Executive Director of that organization he has advocated renewable energy as both a clean energy alternative for Michigan and a new industry with which to diversify our economy and spark Michigan innovation and jobs.

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