No-Wage Slaves

At the time, it didn’t seem outrageous. In fact, nabbing my first
internship seemed a savvy career move, a way to make connections
and get my feet wet. Now that I’ve finally escaped from intern hell
(four unpaid gigs later), I can see that I was a willing partner in
a growing slave economy. I was an exploited worker, and I didn’t
even know it. But now that I do, I can’t seem to get anyone to feel
sorry for me.

Truth is, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for the exploited
intern class. Largely upper-middle class, college and even
graduate-school educated, interns often beat out hundreds of their
peers for the honor of holding unpaid grunt positions. Typically,
they depend on the kindness of their parents, for a place to live
and/or an allowance. The less financially fortunate work nights and
weekends figuring they’ll have time to sleep when the internship
ends. Clearly, interning is not recommended for the faint of heart
or the weak of pocketbook.

Internships are usually billed as ‘resume builders,’ important
stepping stones for young people interested in breaking into highly
competitive ‘glamour industries’ such as fashion, publishing,
architecture, and television.

Sure, every so often a bust-assing intern might snag a
production assistant position at CBS or a really good
recommendation from an editor at Spin — or Utne Reader, for that
matter — but aside from these much-touted Horatio Alger instances,
the tangible rewards of interning are underwhelming.

What people don’t think about, writes Jim Frederick in The
Baffler (#9), is the economic impact of these industries’ growing
dependence on the countless hours of labor provided by young,
willing, unpaid workers. Take MTV — probably one of the choicest
internships around. Frederick reports that the network uses between
150 and 200 unpaid interns at any given time and requires from each
at least two days a week of work. If MTV’s army of interns were to
be paid minimum wage, he estimates that the cost would set the
network back some $642,270 a year. Extending the same formula to
the estimated 40,000 unpaid internships that are filled each year
nationwide ? and assuming that they each last 12 weeks ? he comes
up with a whopping cost savings (for business) or wage loss (for
interns) of $39.5 million.

So why are so many young people lining up to work for free? ‘The
glamour industries enjoy a tremendous surplus of labor,’ Frederick
notes. ‘There are more people who want media jobs than can be
employed. Therefore labor is cheap, as demonstrated by the
industry’s already low salaries. If it can, a market will bid the
wages all the way down to zero, as long as someone, anyone, will do
the work, for whatever real or imagined benefit.’

This phenomenon owes much to the 1990s hyperwork culture, what
former intern Margie Borschke, writing in the lifestyle magazine
Shift (November 1997), calls the ‘extreme Protestant Work Ethic’
where go-go-go is the watchword for Surge-slugging
twentysomethings. And after padding their resumes with three, four,
or even more internships, increasingly, many young people are
signing up for a new form of exploitation: freelance and contract
work. ‘Our willingness to take internships eradicated many
entry-level jobs, and our willingness to take freelance and
perma-lance positions further shrinks the corporate employee base,’
she writes.

That vicious cycle is now beginning even before college, as
school-to-work programs have taken hold in many high schools. These
internship-for-credit deals help introduce students to the working
world, explains Adria Steinberg in the public policy journal
Current (July-Aug. 1997), but they can just as easily be seen as a
school-sanctioned extension of the unpaid college-internship
system, starting ever-younger people on the seemingly endless cycle
of unpaid labor. (‘Screw child-labor laws. This way, we can get the
little squirts to answer phones for free!’) Of course, you don’t
need to be a child of privilege to hold down a high school
internship, so at least kids who might not be able to afford an
unpaid internship later on can make connections and forge alliances
on the public schools’ dollar.

Whatever the case, Frederick concludes that federal regulation
of internship programs is light-years away. Until then, my sage
advice for interns is to hone your ass-kissing skills and start
calculating your back pay. At last count, mine totaled (not
counting for inflation) somewhere near $3,912.

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