If Free College Is a "Handout," So Is Free Labor in the Form of Unpaid Internships

There’s a widespread belief that the experience an unpaid intern gains during their internship is sufficient compensation for their labor. But if that’s the case, why not make entry-level positions unpaid as well? After all, those jobs are meant to be stepping-stones to better, higher-paying gigs within a specific company or industry, so wouldn’t the promise of critically important, on-the-job experience be enough to lure qualified candidates into those positions?

The answer, of course, is no, and that’s because experience has never been, nor will it ever be, fair compensation for a person’s labor. If someone tried to sell my nephew on the idea of mowing lawns for free by citing the invaluable “experience” he’d acquire, I’d shoot that idea down in a heartbeat.

Each minute my nephew spends mowing his neighbor’s lawn frees up one extra minute of time for said neighbor to tackle other tasks that need to be done. If it takes my nephew thirty minutes to get the job finished, that neighbor now has an additional thirty minutes to cook dinner, play with their kids, watch television, or do whatever else he or she wants to do with all that extra time. Therein lies the value of labor.

Time is perhaps the most valuable commodity in existence because of its finite nature. The more time we spend working for someone else, the less time we have for our own pursuits and responsibilities. So when we decide to part with our time by doing something for our employer, we do so with the expectation of getting paid. This is a perfectly reasonable and logical expectation to have. I give you time, and you give me an agreed-upon sum of money.

There are some exceptions to that rule, of course. If my best friend needed a hand moving into a new house, I’d be happy to do so without any compensation at all. That’s what friends are for. If I were married and my wife came down with a serious illness, I’d be by her bedside every hour of the day until she no longer needed my help. That’s what love is all about.

A regular job, on the other hand, isn’t the same thing as a marriage or friendship, but that doesn’t stop some employers from issuing requests for free labor in the form of unpaid internships. And there’s no shortage of people ready to defend that practice, no matter how unfair or exploitative it may be. One such person is the NFL Network’s Jane Slater, who caused a bit of a stir on Twitter when she tweeted the following:


Slater found quite a few allies in her fight to preserve unpaid internships, such as conservative pundit Tomi Lahren, who implied that paid internships are an entitlement on par with free college:


The hypocrisy in Lahren’s argument is glaring. She lampoons the idea of free college presumably because, like many other conservative thinkers, she views it as an undeserved handout. Okay, fine. I myself am not sold on the idea that college should be funded exclusively by taxpayers. But if free college constitutes an undeserved handout to young people, doesn’t free labor in the form of an unpaid internship constitute an undeserved handout to private businesses?

In both cases, one party is being given something of value without any expectation of financial compensation. In the case of free college, that “something” is an education. In the case of an unpaid internship, that “something” is labor. If we’re going to refer to the former as an undeserved handout, why shouldn’t we refer to the latter as precisely the same thing?

As many people on Twitter have pointed out to Slater, unpaid internships are also blatantly antithetical to the concept of a meritocracy. If Slater, Lahren, and their allies believe in a truly meritocratic system, they should be on the other side of this issue. Unpaid internships tend to open doors for those whom many doors have already been opened. More specifically, they open doors to those who can afford to work for free and attend school without having to worry about going hungry or becoming homeless, usually because they have the financial backing of their parents or other family members. In fact, as one of Ms. Slater’s critics pointed out in a response to her initial tweet, she herself admitted to receiving financial support from her very successful grandfather while she was in school:


To be clear, there’s certainly nothing wrong with accepting help from a loving grandparent. But there is something very wrong with the fact that for the student who can’t survive on a nonexistent salary, an unpaid internship isn’t always a realistic option, even if they happen to be even more talented and hard-working than the student who ends up receiving that internship.

Furthermore, unpaid internships sometimes end with the unspoken promise of a full-time position upon graduation. So in addition to missing out on the experiential benefits of unpaid internships, countless low-income students are also missing out on opportunities to prove their worth to potential employers and secure future employment for themselves in the process.

It’s time to throw unpaid internships into the dustbin of history. They’re irreconcilable with America’s purported meritocratic values and represent yet another roadblock to success for marginalized students. Additionally, human labor shouldn’t go uncompensated, especially when it’s performed in the service of a for-profit, private sector company. An internship is work, and workers deserve to be paid. It’s as simple as that.

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