Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unpaid Internships

Bookforum has a thoughtful review by Roger Hodge of
Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin

"According to Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, the rise of this relatively new employment category, which is taken for granted by everyone from the antiunion governor of Wisconsin to the managers of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, is a clear indication of the decline of labor rights in the United States.
"The College Employment Research Institute estimates that 75 percent of college students do at least one internship before graduation. ...nowadays, interns are everywhere, in publishing, merchandising, insurance, finance, consulting, law, engineering, and the defense industry. It seems that most large corporations pay their interns, but the number of unpaid jobs in the economy is booming. ...Based on his reporting, Perlin estimates that one to two million Americans work as interns every year, though he suspects that this number might be on the low end. Most interns are students or recent graduates, and large numbers, perhaps 50 percent overall, work for free. Worse, many actually pay tuition for the privilege of working, as a result of the common misconception on the part of both universities and employers that the bestowal of academic credit somehow nullifies the strictures of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which prohibits uncompensated labor except under carefully defined circumstances. Academic programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have increasingly adopted the internship as a degree requirement. Such requirements foster an economy of scarcity among the most prestigious internship programs... Highly coveted internships at places like Vogue magazine have recently been auctioned off for as much as $42,500; Perlin notes the irony that this obscene sum was raised for the benefit of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Apparently, no one was troubled by the contradiction.
"Unpaid internships function as a class filter, ensuring that the children of the affluent and well connected are overwhelmingly represented in our elite cultural institutions. In addition to politics and journalism, the internship model predominates in the art world, book publishing, Hollywood, television, the music business, and many other industries that were traditionally prolabor. Increasingly, even public school teachers, who do not enjoy particularly high wages or status in our society, work as “student teachers” before gaining permanent positions. The basic issue, which is well articulated by Perlin, is that offering or being compelled to work for free is a paradigmatic example of an unfair labor practice; it creates a toxic race to the bottom as ever more desperate workers compete with one another to drive wages down. The internship economy demonstrates that wages, like interest rates, are capable of dropping to less than zero.

"Perlin recognizes that illegal, unpaid internships can lead to paying jobs. But to respond, as I might have before reading this vigorous and persuasive book, that working without pay for a few months can be an excellent investment is to miss the point. Although I no doubt made an economically rational decision many years ago to abandon my doctoral dissertation on Spinoza for an unpaid magazine internship, it would be far better if employment laws were strictly enforced and that valuable on-the-job training were available to those who don’t have a fellowship stipend or some other means of support. The fact that many individuals can point to significant career benefits from their investments in unpaid labor does not touch the larger argument from inequality."

1 comment:

sashastri said...

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