If you want someone’s blood, sweat and tears, pay them.

Called out a company advertising an unpaid internship “opportunity” on an oft-used social media and networking platform today. The response was swift and threatening.

Nevertheless, in my judgement internships are exploitive and class-enabled. And just because the exploitation is accepted by the group that holds the economic reins, that doesn’t make it right. Or ethical.

I’ve held these views since I did my own internship after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, which essentially qualified me to drive a taxi. I say that with no disrespect to cab drivers – in my opinion all work is valuable, all work is honorable and, most importantly, all work is worthy of renumeration. Including internships.

Technically, my own internship was paid – I received a $50 per month stipend – but that didn’t mean it was paid. Allow me to explain.

Fifty bucks a month was nothing then. It’s even less than that now. More than that, even at the time it was, in truth, less than nothing. I paid more than $50 a month for the gasoline required to get to and from the office every day, never mind food, lodging, a required clothing upgrade… you get the picture. I did not have the money, which meant that, not only did I not make money from the internship, but I added credit card debt.

And let me be clear – I did real work. In fact, by midway through my internship, I was nearly as adept, if not better at, much the work I was responsible for than any number of my salaried colleagues. The organization got value out of me, but I was paid way below the minimum wage. It was all nice and legal, but in my judgement – then, and moreso now – it was exploitation.

As for today’s exchange:

I saw the listing for an unpaid internship, my disgust for the practice kicked in and I called the company out. Here’s the exchange (I’ve replaced identifying information with generalizations in ALL CAPS).

COMPANY, just saw your job listing for an unpaid internship. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Unpaid internships –  free work from people who need experience – should be a thing of the past. You want someone’s blood, sweat & tears? Pay them. Quit taking advantage of people.

“Mr. Fredricks. If you have an issue with our Job Postings in the future, how about coming to me first before publicly posting about it?

“’Unpaid Internships’ are NOT a thing of the past, and our writers have gone on to work for BIG DEAL COMPANIES and in all their Bios they show appreciation to us for the opportunities we gave them. We offer aspiring WORKERS a chance to learn… AND A BUNCH OF OTHER BENEFITS IN BIG SHOT’S OPINION.

“We also have an unpaid internship program in our DEPARTMENT Department. Again, giving experience to young people who want to get into the field and learn.

“What you consider ‘Outdated’ receives hundreds of applicants per job posting.

“In my line of work as a PRACTITIONER OF SOMETHING, I deal with publicists all day, every day. The number 1 rule for any good PR firm is to stay in the shadows and let their work speak for itself.

“I am shocked to learn that the post in question came from someone running a PR firm. It shows a great deal of unprofessionalism on your part. So Mr. Fredricks, Shame on you!”

Founder/Owner of COMPANY

Are you embarrassed by having the criticism in public? You should be. Unpaid internships may not be a thing of the past, but they should be. Suggesting that getting lots of applicants makes it OK is flawed logic; just because people are desperate to get experience does not make the practice reasonable. Further, just because lots of other companies and industries do it, that does not make it proper, either.

In my judgement, it’s yet another example of corporate America taking advantage of people in general and young people in particular. Regardless of whether someone is gaining experience and learning, if they’re doing work for a business, they deserve to be paid for it.

“I have no interest nor the time to engage in a debate with you. If you post any further posts with remarks that can be seen as defamatory towards my company, you will hear from Attorneys BIG SHOT ATTORNEY #1 and BIG SHOT ATTORNEY #2. Please direct any further inquiries to them. Any further messages from you will not be answered but forwarded to my legal team.”

Guess they told me. But they “…doth protest too much, methinks.”

Thing is, while I’m no big-shot lawyer, my sense is BIG SHOT’S definition of defamation is slightly out of whack. Since I was expressing opinions, nothing I wrote is “demonstrably false,” which is part of what must be proven to show defamation or libel. Contrary to what some (too many) people in the USA seem to think, opinions are not facts; by definition they can be neither proven nor disproven.  

I stand by my opinions regarding unpaid internships:

  • If you want someone’s blood, sweat and tears, pay them.
  • “Everybody’s doing it,” is not a legitimate defense of anything.
  • As justifications go, “It’s always been done this way” is worse yet.
  • Unpaid internships are technically legal but should not be.
  • “On-the-job experience” should be just that – getting paid on the job while gaining experience.
  • Without pay, a job is not a job at all; it’s free labor, aka, exploitation.
  • Young people deserve better, especially young people who weren’t lucky enough to be born into a family of means.

I am not alone in these points of view. The following links represent just a handful of results on the first two pages from a Google search for “unpaid internships unethical” –

Psychology Today – “Why Unpaid Internships are Unethical”

Columbia Climate School – “Unpaid Internships are Unethical and Wrong”

National Public Radio – “Questioning the Ethics of Unpaid Internships”

Harvard Business Review – “It’s Time to Officially End Unpaid Internships”

I could not agree more with Harvard Business Review Associate Editor Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, who writes, “The more we discussed, the more I realized just how unethical and exploitative these ‘opportunities’ can be – and worse, just how big a role class, caste, and economic privilege play in who can and cannot afford to take them.”

Exploitation. Class. Caste. Economic privilege.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

It’s time to put a stop to unpaid internships in every industry and business segment. You want to give someone an “opportunity”? Outstanding. Maybe even laudable. But only if you pay them for their time and the work they do.

So what do you think? Please let me know in the comments section below.

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Larry Heilmann · February 11, 2023 at 10:08 pm

Unpaid internships are a problem not only in big corporatioms. Senator Kevin Kramer also does not pay interns in his senate office. They must move to Washington D.C., one of the most expensive cities in the world, and live there for at least six months. In addition they need a suit and tie wardrobe and must be prepred to work long and odd hours. Cramer could pay them. Hoeven, Armstrong and most senators and representatives do. Cramer thinks they shouid live on the honor of being a senate intern.

bruce · February 5, 2023 at 7:24 pm

I think you’ve totally nailed it!
This has been my view since i first heard of this exploitative practice.
Years ago, i was an apprentice and got paid while learning the job. Four years of training and then the company benefited from their investment because they got 30 years of service. Part of that was training our replacements. Yes, we did.
Fun Fact: Most of those 30 years were also times of learning.

    Martin C. Fredricks IV · February 5, 2023 at 7:41 pm

    Thanks, Bruce.

Let me know what you think!

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