Ethical Argument Against Unpaid Internships

There is a relatively unknown Jewish law that reads: One is not permitted to ask the storekeeper the price of an item if he knows he will not purchase it (Bava Mezia 58b). When a person asks the storekeeper the price of an item that he or she has no intention of buying, the person is deceiving the storekeeper, and actually robbing the storekeeper of time. The law allows comparison shopping, however, if you know that you will not buy the item from that particular store you are forbidden to inquire about its price. The obvious reason the Talmud forbade such activity is that it raises the seller’s hopes in vain. But the reason goes deeper than that: Those who violate this law are deliberately misleading people about one of the most important concerns in their life – their income.

In today’s economy, many employers have come to view unpaid internships as a pool of free labor, enabling many businesses to increase profits. It is estimated that in 2010, there were over 500,000 unpaid internships in the U.S., at a savings to businesses of over $2 billion annually.

As individuals who accept unpaid positions universally do so with a desire of securing a future paid position (there or elsewhere), these internships are accordingly described by employers as providing valuable a uniquely valuable experience important in helping to secure a fulfilling and profitable career.

While some of these unpaid internships do prove to be the educational experience and career stepping stone they claim to be, all too many of them are not.

The self-described motivations of employers with unpaid interns are less important than the results of unpaid internship. The reality is that most unpaid internships, which make up nearly half of internships, are failing to deliver on many of the carrots that employers often dangle (implicitly or not) in order to induce interns to agree to work for free.  Recent studies indicate that unpaid internships are surprisingly ineffective, on the whole at advancing one’s career.   Compared to paid interns, these studies indicate that unpaid interns are given more menial tasks and spend more time waiting around for work than paid interns. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) recent 2011 Student Survey found students with unpaid internships did no better in terms of job offer rates that those who entered the job market without any internship (and even showed a 10% decrease in starting salary rates when comparing for those with unpaid internship experience to those without any internship experience). The NACE survey concluded that unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.

If a company implies that an unpaid intern will gain valuable educational experience but ends up performing hours of menial tasks, such as making coffee, cleaning, filing, etc., they have violated the Storekeeper Rule.

If a company implies that when the unpaid intern gains the additional experience they would consider hiring them, when in fact they do not have the intention of ever hiring them (whether because they cannot afford another employee or because they plan on replacing them with another unpaid intern), they have violated the Storekeeper Rule.

If a company makes clear they have no intention of hiring the unpaid intern, but implies that job opportunities in the industry will likely be available to the unpaid intern upon completion of their internship, when the employer knows that there is an overabundance of people seeking jobs in that particular industry or that a decline in the demand for work in the industry has rendered new employment prospects are bleak, they have violated the Storekeeper Rule.

Unpaid internships are ethical and helpful to the interns when they have an educational focus and are not misleading. However, an unpaid internship that attracts interns based on a promise of valuable experience or enhanced job prospects in order to receive free labor from individuals, very literally, “steals” the interns’ time, a critical time at the very start of their career paths when important career decisions have long-lasting effects.

The Shopkeeper Law keeps all of us honest.