Unpaid internship getting you down? It may be illegal to boot.

The rise of unpaid internships in the recession is not surprising given the lack of paying positions, and the ever increasing numbers of college students and graduates. However, new reports are calling a number of these internships into question, seeing if they violate labor laws regarding duties and pay.

M. Patricia Smith, New York’s Labor Commissioner, started an investigation into the legality of many unpaid internships aimed at college aged individuals and to determine if there are violations of minimum wage laws.

Federal labor law proscribes a series of rules for internships, namely that the employer cannot replace a paid worker with an unpaid intern doing the materially same job, and the training cannot be the same as found in vocational programs. The internship programs are designed with the intent of enriching the employee, and not for the immediate benefit and increase of production associated with it for the employer.

Interns are rarely aware of these regulations, and those that are a fearful of raising their rights, fearing ostracism and blacklisting from future employment opportunities. However, it is these employees that are most vulnerable. Interns, regardless of the current economic climate, should be aware of their rights early on, as to not get taken advantage of further down the line in their future careers.