Peter Knight ponders whether interns should be paid

How much should you pay the undergraduate to disinfect lavatory door handles against swine flu? Or for getting the boss her coffee? Or for packing and dispatching samples from a fashion shoot?

The answer is, apparently, sweet nothing. The swine-flu exterminator should be “honoured” to be working for your august institution, getting valuable experience of corporate life and possibly gaining a university credit in the bargain.

Here’s another question. If you, as God’s gift to women, feel tempted to give that sassy little unpaid intern a wee pinch of affection, how legally liable are you for sexual harassment? The answer is simple: not at all! As an unpaid person she does not count as an official employee. That leaves you feel to frolic, Bill Clinton style.

Not since Monica and Bill were cavorting in the White House, have interns risen so high on the political agenda here. This is because the Great Recession has created a playground of opportunity to exploit the many young hopefuls desperate to get the experience they hope will one day land them a job.

My inbox is full of messages from students looking for a summer placement. Some of them are willing to come from very far away for the privilege of a few months of toil. Their parents will pay for their accommodation, travel and food. The interns want to work for, well, as little as I am willing to offer.

So strong is the temptation to exploit that it is not unknown for some in the corporate responsibility industry to pass off the work of interns as that of the more qualified.

Exploitation of interns in the US is easy because the law – a supreme court ruling dating back to 1947 – is dated and seldom enforced. The ruling stipulates that you can’t use unpaid interns as free labour, but the wording displays its age, with its historical focus on blue collar work and apprenticeships.

Given that most interns are seeking opportunities to wear white collars, this places the law at some disadvantage.

The law says that the intern should not displace a paid employee. Furthermore, employers should not derive an immediate economic advantage from the activities of the intern, and the internship should offer training similar to what the intern could get at a vocational school or academic institution.

Benevolent employers

The implication is that the employers should view the internship as an act of benevolence. There is clearly some distance between the law and reality. No wonder very little is being done to bring employers into line, although some states are at least trying to do something.

California has issued guidance to employers warning them that they may be breaking the law if they don’t provide educational opportunities for their unpaid interns. Oregon, in the northwest, has gone further and actually pursued companies for exploiting interns.

A solar panel maker was forced to give two unpaid interns back pay of $3,350 after the state found that the company was treating them as employees in all respects, except pay. Clearly the solar panel makers – like some corporate responsibility consultants – had started believing their own green hype and thought their haloes were real.

That there are not more cases like this is because, like all exploited labour, interns are far too frightened to complain. While their employers are salivating about the immediate benefit of free labour, the interns are looking to the long term and the benefits brought by the all-important paragraph of work experience on their CVs and résumés.

Some universities are trying to prevent their students from being exploited. New York University (NYU) discovered a student working for free at a leading law office, despite the firm promising the university that the student would be paid $10 an hour, about half what a domestic cleaner gets in the city. NYU recently banned two famous Wall Street banks from recruiting unpaid interns on the campus.

What’s to be done? Clearly the law must be upheld and companies should not exploit the vulnerable. But, hey, job wise we are still in recession. As long as the economy remains fragile there will be a troop of students pleading to be exploited in the name of work experience.

Maybe this is our new reality, like the old Indian tradition of buying your offspring a job. No matter if some softies complain, a few months of disinfecting door handles is surely worth the benefit of that magic “e” line in the résumé: “e” for experience/exploitation.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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