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The Ethics Of An Unpaid Internship

Sure, unpaid internships suck and may or may not be illegal, but are they unethical? The NYT’s Ethicist took on the question on Sunday.

The writer says:

I took an unpaid internship that I figured would give me experience and help me land somewhere in six months. Instead I’m picking up coffee and dry cleaning and performing other tasks that the company would otherwise have to pay someone for. I know this is the status quo for internships, but it violates the law, and it feels deeply unethical. Taking legal recourse would hurt my career prospects. Is there anything I can demand of this company in exchange for my slave labor?

Ethicist Ariel Kaminer’s response is basically: No, practically speaking. Any legal recourse (or even a well-timed “take this job and shove it”) would indeed hurt your career but not bother the company one bit, because there are likely thousands of people vying for the same position.

Ethically? Yeah, something ain’t right here. It’s not because an internship like this likely violates the Fair Labor Standards Act. “Plenty of internships that violate employment law might still benefit the intern, of course, by giving her an inside track in a competitive field. Even crummy internships have some value. A firsthand glimpse of the mailroom may not be the stuff of dreams, but it’s more informative than no glimpse whatsoever.” It’s because the system favors people with enough disposable income to work without pay for three months, “and it undermines paid employees, who have the same interest you do in making sure every worker is fairly compensated.”

Elizabeth Wagoner, who’s worked on both recent cases of interns suing their employers, told Kaminer that this intern does not have an ethical obligation to quit (and therefore make some sort of statement about the unfairness of the system). Wagoner suggested filing a lawsuit, but we’ll leave that up to you, reader, to decide whether that’s a wise suggestion.

You could take the internship and then anonymously the Labor Department (harder than it sounds since it involves navigating layers of bureaucracy, but could certainly be satisfying). But “don’t tell them it hasn’t been educational,” Kaminer says. “After all, it has already taught you something about the values of the field you hope to enter.”

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