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Interns Are Exploited and Discriminated Against

Imagine if you ran a company or business, and had the choice of utilizing one of two scenarios in hiring employees. In Scenario A, you take the traditional route. You sift through a pile of worthy job applications, pick the most impressive candidate, hire that candidate, pay him or her an appropriate “entry level” wage, train them, mentor them and, hopefully, come to view them as a valuable addition to the team. That’s Scenario A.

Scenario B is non-traditional. Instead of “hiring” a new employee, you “hire” an intern, someone who so desperately wants to work for your company that they are willing to waive an actual starting salary, forego a clearly defined position on the progression ladder, and relinquish access to many of the rights and privileges afforded an authentic “employee” under state and federal labor law—all in the name of being given the opportunity to “learn the business from the bottom up.” Think Hollywood here.

Internships, which used to be fairly rare, are now commonplace, especially in fields considered so glamorous and/or highly lucrative that recent college graduates will do practically anything to land a job in one. Among those fields are: women’s fashion, big-time book and magazine publishing, high finance, and entertainment (music, television, movies). Think Hollywood.

In Scenario B, even though these interns are paid a pittance (sometimes not even that….sometimes not even so much as a nickel), they will pretty much do anything asked of them. This includes tasks that are more or less germane to their eventual hoped-for career (and are clearly delineated in Scenario A’s job description), but also lots of extraneous stuff, mindless stuff—like fetching coffee, replenishing the stock room, and running personal errands for the bosses.

Because an intern, unlike a traditional “new hire,” has no defined probationary period and no traditional schedule of regular performance reviews that result in traditional pay raises and increased seniority, he or she remains in the decidedly non-traditional state of “grateful servitude.”

Basically, an intern will agree to almost any form of economic subjugation in order to get their foot in the door, and alas, opportunistic employers (think Hollywood) will do almost anything to exploit and perpetuate that arrangement.

But there’s another negative aspect to this. We need to consider the profile of the “typical” intern. Would he or she be a recent Latino or African-American college graduate who had to work a series of part-time jobs and take on a burdensome student loan in order to pay for college—perhaps as the first person in their family’s history to ever receive a bachelor’s degree—or would it be a young Anglo-Saxon whose parents are affluent enough to underwrite his education?

In other words, who would be more apt to jump at the chance of working as an unpaid intern after finally earning a college degree? The relatively poor minority graduate who is already deep in a financial hole—who needs to find a paying job, and needs to find one quick?

Or the “rich” white kid who is in no particular hurry to go out in the world and start earning money—not when he can land a job in a glamour industry simply by agreeing to work there for free, for as long as it takes? Once can argue that this whole “internship” arrangement is rigged to help the privileged.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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