unpaid internships: slavery or opportunity?


Big kafuffle over this question and it all seemed to start when simplyzesty posted an internship opportunity on LinkedIn a few days ago. The result? Heated debate, defensive posts from simplyzesty, slaves.ie and the twitter hastag #slavesie. It’s social media gone wrong as far as simplyzesty are concerned…

Wrong place, wrong time

In SimplyZesty’s defence, they’re not the only company advertising unpaid internships. As they’re eager to point out, several of their staff started out life as interns so it’s not as if they’ve a history of exploiting interns for cheap labour. Last summer, i started looking seriously at jobs and noticed a lot of unpaid internship type jobs and my gut instinct was it was ‘wrong’ but it seemed to be almost common practice. 2/3 month internships and in most cases covering travel expenses with the promise of a ‘potential’ full time job at the end of it. Obviously there will be some who abuse the system and think ‘free labour for a few months… this could help us survive or pay our own wages’ with no prospect of full time work. You’d hope the majority wouldn’t be so ruthless though…

Let’s say I’m a business…

If i’m a business i could advertise for full time staff, but i’d have to conduct thorough interviews in order to make sure i get the right person for the job. How do i know this person can do what they say they can do? How do i know they’re  a team player? How do i know they’re not one of these ‘off sick with a sore throat’ people? I don’t…

Internships would a be a great way to get people working with the team and see how they fit in or what value they can add, if any. It’s low risk for me because i’m not paying them much if anything and it shows great hunger and loyalty from the intern if they’re working for peanuts, but coming in daily and giving it their all…

The ideal scenario for the two of us, assuming i’m not ‘bluffing’ would be that i’d hire them because i’d know this person was trustworthy, the team gets along with them and i’ve made the decision they can add value…

James, I think your cover's blown!
Creative Commons License photo credit: laverrue

If i was an employer, that’s how i’d think. So believe it or not, i’d tend to side with SimplyZesty on this debate although i do think the whole internship process needs to be formalised & regulated. Interns get to ‘prove themselves’ in a real working environment. The same interns might struggle in face to face interviews whereas the guy with a masters and 20 years experience in the job might cruise through interviews but turn out to be using the full time job as a CV filler or a temporary stepping stone to something better.

So i see internships as an easy foot in the door for graduates and a ‘show me what you got’ message from employers. That’s how it *should* work but of course it’s gonna be abused if things don’t change…

Working full time for fresh air

Some intern’s argument is that he or she could be working full time, doing the same type of work as other paid staff, but getting no wages for 2 or 3 months. Is that fair? Well only if all other staff members have gone through the same process. This is where the idea of slavery comes in and this is the risk for the intern… worst case scenario is that they work for a few months for free and don’t get a job at the end of it. That’s a pretty crappy situation but it happens. Now here’s the dilemma… do you start *another* internship knowing how the last one ended up?

When does it stop? If you spend your life working as an intern along with others then naturally it becomes acceptable practice in business and those at the top gain from cheap or free labour… why would they hire a full time staff member if they can fill that position with 2 or 3 interns for free over the year?

The solution

This debate reminds me of some ethical debates we’d have in college. Everyone has an opinion but you just go round in circles. My solution would be to pay interns something like 75% of minimum wage and cap an internship at 3 months in length. When the 3 months are up, the company either hires the intern on a full time basis or lets them go. If they let an intern go, they can’t replace that intern with another intern and instead must advertise a full time position.

That way companies get a crack at hiring interns but can’t abuse the system. Interns don’t get a full wage, which acknowledges they’re learning on the job and perhaps not fully qualified but also ensures they get something for their efforts plus they know that the process is regulated and there’s a fair chance they’ll end up with a full time job at the end of it so there’s less risk involved.

8 thoughts on “unpaid internships: slavery or opportunity?”

  1. Just to clarify Sean the domain slaves.ie was registered in February 2011. As outlined in a tweet here : http://twitter.com/#!/irishslaves/status/99234083179216896

    Even on the minimum wage, working 30 hours a week, it would cost €260 / week. Working 50 weeks per year would cost €13,000 in salary, plus employers PRSI contributions and the cost of a desk. IMHO that’s not a lot to pay someone. 

  2. Disclaimer: I’m one of the people behind slaves.ie … I made a post on internships last Feb

    Think there are a lot of issues with interships and abuse of the system.

    You’ve got the JobBridge style internships where people are getting social welfare + 50 quid to do a job. BUT internships as a pizza maker / hotel porter … a case of a job posted the previous week on a well know jobs board with full wages and the next it’s an intern position make things a bit crazy.

    You’ve got companies simply zesty are the example that garnered a lot of attention this week offering private internships and I guess as such you don’t qualify for social welfare. So you need to be able to fund life yourself. The job mentioned writing proposals which definitely doesn’t sound like intern work.

    Having as you put it an upper limit of 3 months might help things a bit there needs to be a lot more policing of the whole system. The job bridge internships are meant to be reviewed I thought? they’ve done a great job that kitchen porter job is going to look great and I’m going to learn a lot. Look it’s a job it needs to be done but calling it an internship is ridiculous in my opinion. Also why should another hotel have to suffer (charge higher rates because they have to pay a staff member)

    Unfortunately the more it becomes accepted the more it’ll be abused. The situation in France is rather ridiculous. Internships start to become more about hiring the elite who can afford things like rent / food / travel.

    There have also been a whole pile of internships looking for interns with 1 – 2 years experience in the field erm again hang on how is that an intern position?

    Slaves.ie has been generating a lot of feedback both good and bad. The bad hmm seem to disagree with the name slaves.ie but if it’s getting attention to the issue at hand which is no bad thing IMHO. I’ve also not heard any intern criticise the website yet at any rate.

  3. As Paul said the domain was regged in Feb .. been rather busy to put anything together and well this week I ended up putting the page / site together based on feedback from a few chats with Paul / Michele and reading a few other blog posts from others on the issue. Maybe I should have just taken on an intern to do the site hmmm 🙂



  4. Yeah but slaves.ie only went live this week, triggered by the recent internship discussions… (http://www.michele.me/blog/archives/2011/08/slaves-ie-and-the-intern-debacle/)

    I agree, if a business can afford to pay minimum wage to interns, then they should do it, absolutely… but it’s common now to have to work for experience before you can earn a wage.. i know several people doing it… 

    Doesn’t make it right and like i said my gut instinct tells me it’s open to abuse which is why i think it needs regulation. I wouldn’t do it myself personally, i’d just invest my time in to my own projects. My thinking would be i could work for 3 months for nothing in a company and *possibly* have a job at the end of it, or i could work for 3 months by myself with potential to create my own employment / career…

    That’s exactly what i’m doing at the minute so for me, this whole internship trend was a trigger to try and create my own job rather than look for one… but i like the idea of internships whether paid or unpaid. It’s an opportunity for graduates / young people to get in to a company and compete for jobs which they probably wouldn’t get if they were to go through a traditional interview process for a full time job. But it’s wide open to abuse at the minute and i think that’s where we all agree 🙂  

  5. “Unfortunately the more it becomes accepted the more it’ll be abused” – absolutely and that’s my biggest fear… like i said i’ve been looking at jobs for the past year or so whilst in college and it is becoming accepted… i’d say it’s almost common practice… until something is done about it the idea and definition of internships will become mangled and associated with unpaid work, free labour etc.. which could end up destroying what can be a hugely valuable route to entry in to companies for graduates.

    It just needs to be policed like you say and a fairer more transparent system put in place which encourages companies to offer internships and punishes those companies who take advantage of internships.

  6. The entire “what if the person doesn’t fit in” argument doesn’t hold water.  Any sane employment contract includes a trial period. If the person doesn’t work out then the employer can let them go.

  7. Well I was actually meant to do something with it back in Feb and semi had big plans … but as things go I never ended up getting around to it other personal projects and so on. Was out sick on thursday / friday this week and put it together thursday morning when I wasn’t feeling to hot. So it’s a lesson to everyone … do things when you’re feeling sick gets a big response.

  8. The only reason it went live this week was because James was out sick .. now why he’s fiddling with websites when he’s meant to be getting better is another matter entirely 🙂

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