I regret having supervised unpaid interns while working at a previous employer, and would like to apologize. I’m truly sorry. Free labor is exploitative and exclusionary. I’m writing about it now in hopes that it will spark others to change.
During the course of more than three years at a progressive non-profit organization, I worked with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of unpaid interns. I selected and directly supervised about a fifth of the interns in the office. Supervising unpaid interns means that I was complicit in a modern employment system that is elitist, racist and treats workers in a horrifyingly bad way. Rather than name and further exploit the interns I supervised, who were all somewhere on the continuum between pretty great and really great, I would simply like to acknowledge that if you’re reading this, I can see your faces in my mind, I think you’re awesome, and I’m sorry.
No one should be expected to work for free, especially in order to, as the lore about unpaid internships goes, “make contacts and get a job someday.” While publications make sport of who can most lambaste the millennial generation for being lazy and self-absorbed, they rarely report on the growing expectation that our youngest workers should give away their labor for free. If you work on a regular schedule — not as a volunteer who controls your schedule and the projects you will and won’t do — and report to people who are getting paid, you should get paid, too. Period. It’s unacceptable to force workers starting their careers in a ho-hum economy to work for free, simply because they are young. It’s also unacceptable to replace paid workers, often older, with younger interns who are not (or barely) paid.
Those people in power who insist that unpaid interns are required for an organization to survive should get real. If your organization depends upon the artificial condition of employee-like unpaid laborers to survive, your organization needs to either get a new business plan or dissolve. From both moral and operational point of views, this holds true even for non-profit organizations not legally required to comply with unpaid internship rules the Department of Labor has created for for-profit organizations. From an unpaid intern point-of-view, you’re not any more or less not paid whether or not your employer is driven by profit. On the operations side, if you’re filling a niche that is no longer relevant or resists being filled according to your formula, change your business plan or quit and work with a similar organization doing a better job serving the needs of today. If an organization can’t survive enough to pay its workers, it’s on artificial life support — one that is extremely harmful to the people working there for free.
Everything bad about race, class and gender comes out for unpaid internships. Women are 77 percent more likely to hold an unpaid internship. High-income students are more likely to be involved in paid internships. Whites are more likely to be able to afford the privilege of putting an unpaid internship on a resume. Want to learn more? A recent study by Intern Bridge should be all you need to read, vomit and resolve to push for change.
Beyond those I worked with and/or directly supervised, I have known many unpaid interns in my day. Much, but not all, of the non-profit “equality” organizational landscape depends on the free labor of youth. I know how to recognize when people aren’t eating enough not because they are dieting, but because they have no money for food. I find it reprehensible that “free food” is a joke to fetch interns in Washington, D.C., where many interns go to briefings and parties because they are hungry in the poverty sense of the term. I think, specifically, that feminist organizations can do much better, and I resolve to be a forceful advocate for paid internships wherever my career may take me.
In the meantime, I am sorry to my wonderful unpaid interns past. Even if you were satisfied with our time together, and referrals or recommendations I may have given you since, you deserved to be fairly compensated for your work. If I could go back in time, I would fight for you to be paid. You earned it. What I can do now is help to call for change. I hope that others in supervisory roles will join me.