Blowing the Whistle on Illegal Internships

Excerpt: Ross Perlin's 'Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy'

By Ross Perlin

Published May 16, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy
By Ross Perlin
Verso, 2011, $22.95

Every year, hundreds of thousands of interns in the U.S. work without pay or for less than minimum wage. Many of these unpaid or underpaid internships are at for-profit companies and closely resemble regular work: thousands upon thousands of labor violations each year, hidden in plain sight. An Intern Bridge survey, involving 42,000 students at 400 universities, found that 18 percent of the respondents had received neither pay nor academic credit for their internships, a likely indication that these positions were illegal. In certain for-profit industries — fashion, publishing, entertainment, journalism, to name a few — demanding unpaid internships dominate, with illegal situations possibly constituting a majority of all available opportunities.

The broad outlines of a broken paradigm are clear. Unless substantial training is involved, an intern is considered to be an employee, however temporary or inexperienced, and entitled to minimum wage and other protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the central piece of federal legislation that addresses the rights of American workers. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at a blue-chip company or a small business, whether it’s full-time or one day a week, whether the goal is academic credit or a midlife career change — by law, there are very few situations where you can ask someone to do real work for free.

And there are good reasons why that’s the law. Working for free is a way of radically underbidding the competition and prompting “a race to the bottom” — after all, why should an employer pay for something ever again once it can be had for free? Every time young people scramble for an unpaid position, they reinforce the flawed perception that certain kinds of work have lost all value. Whether or not any given individual is happy to make this trade-off, the decision has consequences for everyone else. For an inexact but suggestive comparison, imagine if Chinese carmakers, keen to capture market share and subsidized by Beijing, started offering their cars to American customers for free. This would be considered illegal for more or less the same reason: Using an unfair advantage to drop the price to zero both distorts markets and destroys livelihoods.

Yet illegal internships are spreading openly and inexorably; they have become a social norm propagated by employers, schools, parents, and interns themselves. The publisher of a storied California newspaper attempts to replace his reporting staff with full-time, unpaid interns, recruited from top journalism schools. Wall Street firms, hedge funds, and asset management companies, sensing students’ desperation in tough economic times, offer unpaid brokerage internships, involving financial analysis and investment research as well as secretarial work. Start-ups pencil interns into their business plans as a cost-saving measure, with empty promises of a distant salary or a stock option bonanza. Nearly every day, in every major city, employers post ads for illegal internships on Craigslist,, and countless college job boards, describing serious work roles for qualified individuals, promising no pay and little or no training.

The cheerful, little-noticed manipulation of 20-somethings constitutes a serious violation of law and basic ethics. Having inured ourselves to their informal, banal character, we make excuses for the unregulated and irrepressible spread of internships, to the erosion of the concept of work. The mutual consent of employer and intern should not be mistaken for proof that all is well or legal. After all, most sweatshop workers also consent to their toil, for lack of a better option. We tend to assume, reasonably, that something so widespread, so openly touted by respectable institutions, must be legitimate. Entire industries rely unabashedly on this source of free or cheap labor; an increasing number of placement firms are building multimillion-dollar businesses around selling such internships; thousands of educational institutions lend them credibility and resources. Why is no one blowing the whistle on illegal internships?

Michael Tracy, an employment lawyer who has written about internship law, succinctly states the issue: “The law is not widely known.” For a long time, this was true of students and parents, university personnel and employers alike — but there was nothing accidental about this blind spot. A quick Internet search reveals the basic criteria that make an internship legal or illegal, information that media outlets and bloggers have now published thousands of times. Still, virtually no one mentions the law in conversation or takes it very seriously. Employers, schools, and professional associations benefit from the current system; parents and students largely accept it and bear the costs.

Interns themselves do communicate, sometimes feverishly and effectively, about which internships are revelatory or useless, fun or mindnumbing — now increasingly through dedicated internship rating websites — but there’s very little discussion of whether many internships are legitimate in the first place. According to Tracy, “The problem is that there are ‘willing victims.’” Yesterday’s interns need their former employers as references or contacts, and today’s interns trade their half-understood rights for a résumé boost. Some parents, raised in an era when work entailed pay, try to impart this old-fashioned idea to their teenagers and 20-somethings, but many also encourage and badger their progeny into getting a leg-up on the competition, no matter what. Indeed, parents are often the ones indulgently but misguidedly underwriting illegal internships, in effect subsidizing the companies that reap free labor.

And it’s not just about minimum wage. A host of other, related rights are at stake with illegal internships, from overtime to sick days to basic workplace rights. With their rights under the FLSA ignored and unenforced, interns face a second, equally cruel injustice: Those working without pay are also left without legal standing and effectively “in legal limbo” — unable to bring lawsuits against employers, internship programs, or colleges. Our youngest workers, least likely to be wise in the ways of the workplace, effectively have no legal voice; they are considered no different from bystanders who just happen to be holding down a cubicle. Those subject to sexual harassment or racial discrimination have no legal recourse. No fair hiring practices pertain. In the world of internships, anything goes — inhumane employment practices, right out of the 19th century, are resurfacing in 21st-century office parks and skyscrapers.

Ross Perlin is the China correspondent for the Forverts and a researcher at the Himalayan Languages Project. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time magazine and Lapham’s Quarterly, among other places.

Watch an interview with Ross Perlin on the Forverts Video Channel:

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.