Are Unpaid Internships Fair?

by Cathy Vandewater | February 03, 2012

Xuedan Wang, a former intern at Harper's Bazaar, worked for the magazine from August 2011 to December 2011. The position was full time, with hours topping out at 55 hours per week, but Wang received no payment for her labor. Now, the former intern is suing the parent company, Hearst, for a violation of federal and state wage and hour laws.

Let's take a look at her case, and the current laws governing unpaid internships. The Department of Labor laws clearly states that an unpaid internship should be mutually beneficial to the intern as well as the company. The laws also prohibit replacing paid employees with interns. The position in question, in which Wang "coordinated pickups and deliveries of fashion samples between Harper’s Bazaar and fashion vendors and showrooms, " sounds like a little of both. According to the New York Times, she also "assigned other unpaid interns to help carry out the pickups and deliveries," which sounds very much like a management role—though it's hard to believe that Wang, 28, with a degree in strategic communications, got much learning experience out of it.

She also never got a job at Harper's.

Wang is filing a class action suit, which will aim to protect all unpaid interns against company abuses of their labor. But surprisingly, Wang's getting some backlash from exactly those peers--fellow toiling, unpaid interns—who chide her having unrealistic expectations. Magazine publishing, an oft considered "glamour" industry, is notoriously difficult to break into, and most would-be employees fully expect pay their dues. If unpaid internships are made unlawful, some worry that there will be fewer opportunities for everyone to get experience in the industry.

That's valid. But the improvement of internship quality could be worth the extra competition of fewer positions. There will also be more hope of getting hired after the internship is completed. Take Wang's job, for example; according to the Times, "She also helped maintain records on the fashion samples and process reimbursement requests for corporate expense reports." To not be paid for a high-level task would be unthinkable in any other industry. But while interns are taking on those roles, no one in publishing is going to be paid to fill them.

That holds true for many entry-level roles, from editorial assistant (which used to be the starting point for editor-wannabes before "editorial intern" was created) to fact checker. Even "assistant internships" are replacing executive assistant roles, which garner very respectable salaries in other corporate environments.

What's happening is that, while there are more entry points for young workers, the career paths are not sustainable. Interns have to work a slew of unpaid jobs before even being considered for paid work, since the low level jobs are snatched up by experienced workers. And because there's always a sea of fresh faces eager to labor for free, companies have no incentive to train interns, or make sure they have a good experience. They'll have them slog through low-level tasks, only to be replaced in three months, when they inevitably burn out.

This practice isn't just miserable for interns, or the employees they're replacing; it's also intensely unfair to young people who can't afford to live in major metropolitan areas while working full time for free.

It's time for a change. We salute Ms. Wang for standing up for a cause that many interns, who, without the foothold of experience, have gone unspoken for much too long. We'll keep an eye on the case—but what have your experience been with unpaid internships? Do you think putting consequences in place for breaking these labor laws might hinder for young workers?

On the other hand, has your job ever been replaced by unpaid labor? Talk to us in the comments section!

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

Read More:
The Other Problem with Unpaid Internships
Department of Labor: Internship Guidelines
Former Intern Sues Hearst Over Unpaid Work and Hopes to Create a Class Action

Filed Under: Job Search | Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues


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