The issue of unpaid internships has seen a resurgence in the media lately, ever since the filing of two lawsuits: one by two interns that worked on the movie Black Swan, against Fox Searchlight Pictures, and one by a former intern for Harper’s Bazaar, against the fashion magazine’s parent company Hearst Corp.
Over at Slate, Katy Waldman weighed in on the hot button topic, taking a look at why complaints such as these are so rare, and why the real victims aren’t the interns themselves.
Unpaid interns aren’t likely to complain about getting the short end of the stick, Waldman says, because they know that in an uncertain economy, having that experience is going to improve their job prospects, and they wouldn’t want to alienate a potential future employer by speaking up. It’s the classic prisoner’s dilemma: If everyone refuses to work for free, employers are forced to pay wages, but if just a few people take the internships, both they and the companies come out ahead.
Not all interns are the put-upon, coffee-fetching drones that come to mind, either. Waldman says she had a positive experience, and so did I. I have my unpaid internship to thank for just about every career opportunity that came afterward. And that, Waldman says, is the real problem.
Internships can be an invaluable jump-start to a person’s career, and the millions of lower-income Americans who can’t afford to work for free are denied those employment opportunities. Those who suffer most from the prevalence of unpaid internships aren’t the interns; they’re the ones who enter the job market at a disadvantage with fewer impressive lines on their resume due to factors out of their control. It remains to be seen if the lawsuits will change any of that.