“But they agreed…” The mistaken defense of illegal unpaid internships

I think we all recognize the importance, value and integrity of being a person who stands by their words and their agreements.? But what happens when we agree to something based on certain representations, only to find out later that those representations (whether implied or explicit) were false?? That the reality is in fact very different than what we were led to believe the agreement called for?

Whenever I discuss the legal issues associated with unpaid internships, I seem to encounter one justification for denying unpaid interns pay more than any else.? It goes something like this:

“Well, the intern agreed to do the internship.? They knew what they were getting into, and agreed to do it anyway, unpaid.? No one is making them do it.? And to go after the employer for wages after the fact, despite their agreement, is wrong.”

Personal responsibility.? Freedom of contract.? Etc.

And generally speaking, I am in favor of those principles as well, probably more than most.? I am a proponent and admirer of people who follow their dreams, and are willing to make huge sacrifices to get where they want to be.? Sometimes (oftentimes in our current culture), that path will take them through one or more unpaid internships.? I don’t feel that internships (including those that are unpaid) are a bad thing necessarily.? In fact, for the right person in the right situation, they can be (and are) amazing opportunities and a step forward on their path to their ultimate goals.? And as adults in charge of shaping their own destinies, I support whatever choices those people make.

Here’s the overwhelming problem with that argument when it comes to a huge swath of unpaid internships though.? Two problems actually.

First, as we all know, things are not always as they appear from the outside.? Oftentimes, we only really begin to understand something once we’re in the thick of it, or in many cases, once we’ve actually finished with it and have some distance to reflect on our experience.? If someone agrees to an internship based on the understanding that it’s one thing (a legitimate growth opportunity), and it turns out to be something else (a dead-end situation, or worse, a situation where they wind up being exploited or taken advantage of), it become apparent that the internship they got was not the internship they bargained for.?? I think this is especially common because, when many employers take on interns, there is often a sense of essentially limitless power in relation to their interns–no request by the employer is out of bounds, and interns are expected and encouraged to humbly accept any demand employers make.? As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

As a result, many employers use their power to have the intern perform tasks that are completely beyond the pale of any sort of training or learning (coffee, cleaning, data entry, organiazing, you naem it), or to work longer and harder than was contemplated.? After all, the intern “needs” this–they can’t say no, and the employer knows it.

I’ve spoken with a number of interns, and what always comes up is the fact that, in fact, their internship was NOT what they signed up for…they might have agreed to an unpaid internship, but not the internship experience they ultimately got.? In some cases, employers induced interns to work longer and harder, or to do other tasks, by making it appear there would be a job at the end of it for them.? In some cases, interns took internships for the actual (gasp) training in their field, and all they got was a lot of experience organizing files and …? They did not get what they “agreed” to.

If the employer, by virtue of his or her almost complete power over the situation, is in the position to dictate exactly what that internship experience consists of, why do we demand that the intern be the one who must “like it or lump it”?

Second, there are a number of factors influencing a person’s initial decision to agree to an unpaid internship, not all of them self-driven, and many of them based on misinformation.? Schools interest, glut of labor, general sense of this is how its done.? Personal responsibility and accountability is extremely relevant and important, but it only goes so far.? If all the people of power in your life, including those presumably with your best interest in mind (ie. your school), is telling you you need to do an unpaid internship, and that by doing an unpaid internship you’ll be setting yourself up for a successful career, and that is not true, your agreement was based on complete misinformation.? The fact that schools on the whole benefit from the institution of unpaid internships further complicates the matter (money from credits, placing students where no jobs in given fields, whatever behind the scenes relations with employers).? If you’re 20 and getting all this information, people telling you to go work somewhere for free because you need to, how much can we say you are really making that choice?? And if, during or after, you look back on your experience and realize it was unhelpful or worse, that you were taken advantage of, why shouldn’t you stand up for yourself?