Under the microscope: Unpaid Internships

By Rabiah Mutalip|05-08-2021 | 14 Min Read
Uh...so, do you accept my unpaid internship experience as a method of payment?

Hello there fellow reader! This is quite a controversial topic, so best fasten your seat belt because we are going for a ride. 

Editor’s note: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so please be respectful and take these pointers with a pinch of salt. 

Unpaid internships, huh, why is it legal, ethical, and moral? Why do we think it's "okay"? 

What can be said about it? Why are unpaid internships legal? Isn't it a form of exploitation, especially when the interns are doing most of the work? Piled on by their superiors, they have to stay muted, fully have no say in it due to the contract, and it is "their job", notably carrying the label "interns", they must obey and adhere to what was said, and asked of them. 

Are they, too, coerced into doing things they are not familiar with or dislike by masking it as "learning opportunities"?

Why are their "cries" regarded as "whines", "complaints", "spoiled", "ungrateful" when they are candid, reasonable and vocal towards their genuine & inner emotions?

Are the companies practising what they preach? In terms of understanding the interns or employees’ emotions, are they simply exercising the cognitive dissonance phenomenon? Whereby you say one thing but do the total opposite of what you are imparting. 

"Under the Marxian view of capitalism, labour is a commodity bought and sold on the market. In exchange for the burden of that labour, workers get a salary or wage. No need to cite Das Kapital – anyone who has ever had a job could tell you as much. So how could an unpaid internship possibly exist in a capitalist system?"


Touching on the case of being a full-time intern, handling a plethora of tasks (similar to full-time employee) but unpaid, is it worth it? 

So many thoughts are running through my head that I cannot simply compile and accumulate them into one single breath. Nevertheless, this article will give you an insight into why the subject ‘unpaid internship' will have that permanent dent and forever be on the heaviness side of the seesaw analogy. 

The basic gist that we gather from unpaid internship:
Pros: experience, exposure to the working world, networking, and collaboration
Cons: not paid, exploitation, errand person, forced labour 

It is so much like being on a seesaw wherein one side is enduringly heavier than the other. You're struggling on whether to secure a job that can add up to your experience, however taxing it may be with no tangible rewards or safeguarding your mental health. 

Desiring monetary rewards does not make your vocation or work mentality different from those who merely yearn for exposure and experience; even with those profound reasoning, it does not make you a more extraordinary person. 

As known to many, being an intern already has a significant gap amongst all the full-time employees. The inequality in a work setting is palpable that immediately the interns have to walk on eggshells in the milieu. This distinction surely will yield a significant imbalance in the organisation, which might lead to the discomfort of the interns. 

Axiomatically, being an intern has its fair share of benefits. 

For instance: 
(1) gaining substantial work experience 
(2) testing the depth of the water before diving into it (e.g. vagueness of their career trajectory and what they desire to do) 
(3) first-hand managing projects and tasks 
(4) exposure via collaboration and networking 
(5) a stepping stone into starting or building your career: beautifying and enhancing your resume for future job opportunities [this is to make you look 'impressive' in the eyes of stakeholders or big organisations]

Regardless of such rewarding factors, the opposite side of the seesaw remains heavier. 

Suppose you deep the situation at hand; you will still have a better and fairer advantage at being paid whilst being subjected to the same rewarding aspects. Monetary rewards yield a significant impact on a person [especially on a personal level] simultaneously as an incentive towards their work productivity and efficiency. It is a win-win situation. Happy and comfortable work life, you will gain a competent and content employee. But like how unfair everything is in this world, apologists for the unpaid internship will argue the opposite.

"All workers deserve pay, whether they're fetching coffee or designing a webpage for a company." 



Now let's talk about to whom and which demographic will 'unpaid internships' be beneficial

Unpaid internships can be an advantage to the affluent neighbourhood as opposed to benefitting the middle and destitute community. Most job seekers are doing internships for income or pocketing the extra cash. 

Furthermore, the rise and normalisation of the 'unpaid internship' phenomenon by companies and corporations wherein they disenfranchise job seekers (particularly those in need of money to make ends meet) can be dubbed as exploitation and forced labour. 


As aforementioned, it is rough enough that the interns are not getting paid. However, now companies are exploiting their talent and skills, pushing them too extreme. For instance, asking them to bite more than they could chew (e.g. managing multiple projects under many divisions left and right), regardless of how deft and capable they are. The painful part is that their hard work is not being paid, besides via measly positive affirmation and scanty recognition. That might only work for a week or so. However, it is intangible rewards that are impossible to put food in their mouth. 


The Big ‘C’

Referring to my previous point wherein unpaid internships can be seen as building your resume. This is where capitalism plays a significant role. Most companies that promote or advocate unpaid internships are predominantly of big or widely connected organisations. They boast about the many doors that will proffer you once you have their 'name' plastered on your resume. Initially, you will contemplate the great opportunity taking it on, only to realise later that you unconsciously overlooked your health and life prospects. This is a solid exemplification of a 'worst-case scenario'.

Despite popular beliefs, it was noted how those who had (unpaid) internships during their undergraduate years are far less likely to land a stable or solid job afterwards. This case may dawn on those victims over how futile the hard labour and strenuous exertion they exhausted during those difficult periods. 


With overworking unpaid interns, your business will follow the fate of the infamous Titanic, which results in a sinking ship (another significant negative point). Look at this in a more realistic binocular: unpaid interns receive no tangible rewards other than barely existing positive affirmations from their superiors (which does not guarantee their lasting efficiency). Over time, these interns will render listless and meagrely execute their work, leading to pushbacks from their employers. Other than the evident decline in work performance, this will eventually hurt the business stock market and lose clients periodically due to incompetencies. 

This case should shed light on the companies that continue to underpin the 'unpaid internship' phenomenon. Carl Jung has eloquently professed how 'shadows' are issues that you repressed that can evoke a disturbance in the force. It can be in the form of nightmares, anxiety, anger, and more. It will not go away until you confront it. Ergo, no matter how illuminating you can be, shadows will be forever bound to you. In this case, the shadows in question are the interns, wherein they work hard behind the scenes to ensure everything flows seamlessly and smoothly but eventually will bite you in the posterior if you decide to neglect or mistreat them. Metaphorically speaking, of course. However, psychologically speaking, the shadows will no longer be your friend and companion but your worst nightmare.

Some businesses encourage you to explore within the company. However, the latter half of that furnishes you with futile and menial tasks (i.e., errand person, copier) regardless of your credentials and remarkable feats. In such cases, your talent will be wasted, and you will not be able to gain the "experiences" that everyone is boasting about. You would not be able to hone and whet your skills and aptitude. 

Unpaid internships have so many parallels to forced labour, specifically when the interns are being exploited for their talent and hard work.

However may be the case, some job seekers especially speaking to the fresh graduates, cannot afford not to settle for it. They are expected to compete amongst their peers simultaneously with those previously dismissed to secure their 'dream' or 'coveted' job. Additionally, highlighting the fact that those contenders have accumulated a far substantial amount of past jobs/internship experiences, as some companies require and do a favour if their potential employees have at least some past experiences to start working for theirs. This is usually to reduce the transition timing, especially in a fast-paced company (at least the 0.1% reason behind it). 


Just as there's no such thing as a free lunch, there's no such thing as a free intern to fetch you that lunch.


Pro tip: Choose your company wisely; their work culture is super important to take note of. Always be transparent with your future employee. You never know what you have got yourself into. 

Looking into the Pandemic lens

Furthermore, switching the gear into the pandemic situation. Most businesses have difficulty transitioning from a physical (face-to-face) work setting into an online work setting. This situation ensues many dismissals of employees due to strained budgets and cuts. 

With that, many full-time employees are laid-off, leaving them to stretch high and lows for a new job position regardless of their deftness but centred predominantly on their willingness to merely receive an income to fend for themselves (and their families). 

This case brings tension not only to the competition for job seekers but particularly interns and fresh graduates with little to no job experience, which heightens the unfavourable taste of the ‘unpaid internship’ phenomenon. The job competition will be stiff, as businesses will favour employees who have been in the working industry for quite some time and do not require adjustment into the company. Additionally, the adjustment to working from home will also intensify poorly. Also, due to the budget cuts, companies will solely be taking in ‘unpaid interns’. Chiefly speaking for unpaid interns will grow anxious and angry. They will become more unmotivated and despondent as time progresses because it feels as if their effort is being wasted.

Moreover, working from home almost has zero boundaries, wherein you are unsure when to start and unsure when to stop; despite having solid timings, the line is still vague. Also, you are clueless about whether you deserve to take a break or not, considering you're already working in the comfort of your own home. 

And to think that is the end of the horror, but no. Some companies or employers furtively impose work onto the interns during public holidays or even push their work into the weekend.  This case will leave the interns with no rest in between, leading to overworking them and work burnout. 

The transparency of duties and contracts (or lack thereof)

Further noting how the contracts are drafted, items stipulated in the contracts are often ambiguous. The employers are not as transparent as they are supposed to be, leading them to stealthily pile all the work onto the interns' plates. 

Disadvantages > Advantages

As expected, the drawbacks outweigh the perks of being an unpaid intern, specifically speaking during this challenging time we live in (i.e., the pandemic). It is bad enough that we are not getting paid, but the amount of taxing tasks being piled on us, simultaneously expected to maintain a top-notch deliverance, can be very arduous and downcast. A pipe can only handle the pressure so much until it bursts and becomes an open faucet. 

And to reiterate, interns and fresh graduates will be competing intensely with strong contenders, which will leave them dejected and crestfallen with a garnish of despair sprinkled around the corner. This event will only deteriorate their already depressing case. 

∴ I hope we can ruminate and reappraise our worth because our time is of the essence and should be respected accordingly. You are at the helm of your ship, steer and navigate it however you please. If you think you can dedicate your time and effort to work that does not yield you tangible rewards, then by all means. If you believe recognition and positive affirmation is not enough to compensate for your time and hard work, that is equally valid. It should be up to you to decide. Never let people lead and sway your narrative.


The university conundrum - Affiliation 

Indubitably, I am in similar shoes as many, wherein internship placement is a part of the curriculum for you to graduate. However, universities and colleges can work better on this. They can put a halt to proffering students with 'unpaid internships'. If they value their students, they should not affiliate with companies and firms that do not possess and hold the principle of equity. Students are in their hands, and if they would like to get paid for their hard work, it will be the same case for the students. Learn to be flexible with your standpoint because if you push people into doing things that you could not muster yourself to do then, you're no less than all the hypocrites out there. 

Provide meaningful tasks!

Another gear would be that if the organisations cannot afford to pay their interns, the work seconded should be reasonable, direct, and meaningful. The contract should not be longer than a month and have the liberty to terminate the agreement in their own volition without needing a robust case to justify. Always be practical because there are far more rewarding opportunities for the students to jump on. Never limit their possibilities and prospects.

If unpaid internships are on the rise, and many have voiced their concerns and opposition to them. Perhaps, universities should have a contingency plan. If they do not want to suspend the internship placement programme, then furnish something for the students, something equally valuable such as free classes that can hone their strengths. This strategy would be far more helpful in long-term speaking. Students will be keener in whetting their forte rather than being pushed around in a corporate milieu that does not even pay nor benefit them in the future. 

Amplify, Underpin, & Champion

We should always encourage the voice of our teenagers and young adults. Listen to what they have to say because they are the ones walking in their shoes, and they are the ones directly experiencing and being affected by the issue. Never downplay their cries, but rather aid in amplifying their voices. Think of it as a ripple effect or a butterfly effect. Never underestimate small voices as together, they would exude a powerful echo. Lawmakers might hear people raising and marshalling for a good cause that the 'Head' can further champion the case. This situation can exemplify the power of the ripple effect, you start as a single voice, but as you gather your troops, you will be able to revise the Labour laws. 



Ending this insightful and somehow striking a chord piece with an evocative sentiment from my partner in crime, Kiran:

There is an argument Robert Kiyosaki used when he faced a situation when he had to kill a Vietnamese boy during the war. Legally he could. But morally and ethically, he just couldn't kill. The same thing can be said for any company. Be human and do the morally right thing. For such reasons, big corporations who have funds allocated for CSR work should reflect whether what they are doing with their unpaid intern is morally sound!!



Whew! I need to take a breather after digesting all those pointers. Indeed the back of my legs is clammy (oops, TMI). Anyway, before you go, why not wash down that tasteful and savoury information with an insightful and remarkable dessert TedTalk about rallying against Unpaid Internships:

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Rabi'ah Mutalip is an introverted bookworm trying to find her place in this world. Highly passionate about conversing topics that spark her intellectual fancy and stimulate her academic prowess. She loves basking in the commentaries and think-pieces that contribute predominantly to her amelioration. Her witty touch of sarcasm and puns are her forte.
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