Unpaid internships: Are Colleges Complicit?

Our recent focus on unpaid internships unearths the troubling issue of the educational institutions’ dubious positions towards these unpaid positions.

A New York Times op-ed by Ross Perlin, a researcher at the Himalayan Languages Project found that institutions of higher learning have been complicit in helping companies skirt a nebulous area of labor law.

Indeed, colleges and universities have become cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom, by failing to inform their students of their legal rights. Mr. Perlin describes the life of these unpaid interns, who arrive in New York City and have to sleep on floors and couches, because they cannot afford an apartment as they are constantly short on cash. The only reward the intern gets from his work is a letter from the company, certifying that he was receiving credit for doing the internship, without receiving any actual educational benefit form the internship they complete.

According to the College Employment Research Institute, three-quarters of the 10 million students enrolled in America’s four-year colleges and universities will work as interns at least once before graduating. Between one-third and half will get no compensation for their efforts, a study by the research firm Intern Bridge found.

Interns are also not protected by law against racial discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Fearing a crackdown by regulators, 13 university presidents wrote a letter to the Labor Department in 2010 stating, “while we share your concerns about the potential for exploitation, our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education.”

In the meanwhile, these practices are still illegal under the rules laid out by the Labor Department, that we have reiterated in blog entry of November 8, 2012. Companies using unpaid interns may face legal claims and are certainly liable for their actions. See this lawsuit initiated by Hearst former Interns over Unpaid Work.