The price of unpaid internships

By The Beacon | September 19, 2013 12:57am

By Nastacia Voisin |

Some evenings I set aside my textbooks and papers and work out a few simple sums.

Basic math: add, multiply and subtract, subtract, subtract. I fiddle with the numbers. I ask myself “What if?”

What if I found a third job? What if I took out more loans? What if I spent less, slept less and worked harder?

Yet no matter how I calculate, I simply cannot afford to work more than 20 hours a week without pay while attending university.

Internships are traditionally a part of the career building process in that they offer hands-on experience and valuable connections. These two assets apparently justify using students as free labor. The logic runs thus: if students are gaining instead of giving, they don’t need to be paid a dime.

This summer a Manhattan judge decided otherwise in a ruling that found Fox Searchlight guilty of breaking employment laws by not paying production interns on the set of "Black Swan." A slew of high-profile organizations - including Condé Nast, Warner Music Group and The New Yorker - have also recently come under fire for not meeting legal standards for unpaid internships.

My generation has been accused of being over-privileged, and I have encountered the opinion that unpaid internships are something of a privilege we are too arrogant to appreciate. They are a rung in the ladder of success, and just like loans or boring retail jobs they have been endured by past, successful generations who dealt without moaning.

Clearly, it’s not the system that’s unfair. It must be that we’re too lazy to work for free.

But being unwilling to work up to 50 hours a week without any compensation is not laziness. Nor are these unpaid internships a “taste of the real world”. They are a taste of injustice. And it is an injustice that is perpetuated in part by students like me.

With tuition costs rising and government loans set to double next year, I do not have the luxury of forgoing wages for months at a time. But like most career-focused college students I have a vested interest in padding my résumé, and while not accepting an unpaid internship means less exploitation, it also means less exposure.

I worry that the unforgiving competition of the media industry will render my call for fair pay meaningless. I worry that if I do not have enough internship-forged connections, job opportunities will pass me by.

Employers move toward an unpaid internship model not for the benefit of students, but to dodge federal minimum wage laws. Internships of the unpaid variety can be found in abundance, and our tolerance of them speaks ill of our nation’s commitment to fair pay, economic equality and workplace welfare. This practice of churning people through a system of uncompensated labor for their first professional experience is indicative of the increasing dehumanization of the ever more competitive workforce.

I watch the activism of students and organizations who are attempting to up-end the flawed internship culture, and I stand in solidarity with their intentions. Yet come spring, I will be hunting for an internship – paid or unpaid.

I have done the sums, and I cannot afford to refuse an unpaid internship.

Nastacia Voisin is a junior communication studies major. She can be reached at