It’s easy to say that unpaid or barely-paid interns at Conde Nast magazines or other companies shouldn’t take the job if they don’t like the conditions, and that they certainly shouldn’t turn around and sue over it. But that take on a recent lawsuit against the publishing company — and on Conde Nast’s decision not to offer any more internships, paid or otherwise — overlooks the fact that the rule on what an internship is, and what the young interns expect, is fuzzy and widely ignored.
You can volunteer for a nonprofit but not a company. But an internship, even for a nonprofit, is supposed to be of more value to the intern than the company. The intern isn’t supposed to actually be helping the organization in the ways a paid person would as much as getting valuable free learning. In the case of the challenged internships, the interns are claiming they were doing the same work as regular employees — but for wages below the legal minimum.
But then there are other rules that say that if a student gets academic credit for the internship, it's OK because the college is supposedly making sure the internship is of real worth as a learning experience.
As we all know, these mushy rules are flouted more often than they’re followed. Internships have become a way to skirt minimum-wage laws, as well as a way for more affluent students to put impressive-sounding stuff on their resumes. Not that the latter point is all that important. Affluent students are going to be able to afford a lot of things that other students can’t. Everyone isn’t going to get an utterly level playing field. And if the internships in towns like New York or Washington paid minimum wage, low-income students still couldn’t afford them.
Aside from which, employers and grad schools are getting wise to this situation, and increasingly look for students with real-life experience doing real-life jobs, the kind of stuff that has value to organizations — so valuable, they’ll pay for it. And affluent students will always be able to “volunteer,” including on glamorous jaunts overseas building houses for the poor. Meanwhile, if the money for their flight and room and board had been donated to the organization, it could have paid those local poor people to do the construction.
The old-fashioned, benevolent, train-a-new-generation paid internship has become a real rarity. But it should be that or nothing. No slave labor. No nonprofits that puff up their free labor pool by giving humble, no-prestige volunteer work a fancy new name.
What the Conde Nast lawsuit accomplishes is new awareness, and more than a little worry among companies and nonprofit groups about how they use and abuse these young workers. If it’s worthwhile to have the intern working, then the labor is worth a trainee’s salary.
Then there's the government as employer: It's exempt from the internship rules. It can bring in all the people it wants to do scut work, pay them nothing and call it an internship. No wonder it’s not making a bigger fuss about abuses of the modern internship.