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Summary:

InternMatch, a start-up that helps students find internships, is calling on companies to sign a “Bill of Rights’ that promises fair treatment and paid or meaningful work. Some big names are signing on.

Oliver Twist
photo: Corbis / Guy Ferrandis / Tristar Pictures

A spate of lawsuits brought by interns in the fashion, entertainment and publishing industries has triggered new debate over whether interns should be paid and how companies should treat them. In the latest development, career site InternMatch has published an “Intern Bill of Rights” that was won the support of corporations like CBS, Viacom and Rosetta.

The proposal calls for employers to provide interns with a formal document that defines their positions and legal standing, and says they “deserve fair compensation for their work, usually in the form of wages and sometimes in the form of dedicated training.” (The full bill and a petition for firms to add their name is here).

According to InternMatch founder, Nathan Parcells, intern exploitation is partly the result of a decline in traditional career fairs where employers were encouraged to develop common employment standards. Today, there is little consensus over how to even define an internship — at a time when more young people regard them as a necessary first step into the workforce.

The past year has seen a series of class actions suits, involving companies like Fox and Hearst, in which interns claim they were exploited or used as free labor. According to Parcells, whose site attracts 500,000 students every month and employs four paid interns, this litigation (much of it unresolved) is leading companies to take an interest in the Bill of Rights.

But will this actually change anything? Tales of internship woes are a staple of the the New York Times “most e-mailed” articles list, and young people remain in the same position – desperate to enter the workforce in a lousy economy and reluctant to rock the boat. Even Bill DeBlasio, the progressive poised to be mayor of New York, doesn’t want to pay his graphic designers.

The best we can hope from the Intern Bill of Rights is for it to exert positive peer pressure on bigger companies to follow the lead of the Atlantic and others who are committed to paid and meaningful internships.

In the bigger picture, though, intern exploitation could be just one more symptom of a larger economic malaise in which policies favor the old at the expense of the young, and the wealthy to pocket all the gains in America’s fragile recovery.

  1. HCX / Karen Mattonen Monday, September 23, 2013

    considering that it’s the law, what is the purpose of this? to remind them of the legalities, or are they just not aware of the legal process?

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    1. Nathan Parcells Monday, September 23, 2013

      Good question Karen. The purpose is a few fold:

      1. The primary goal is to highlight clear and actionable best practices that include but also go beyond payment. Many companies who do pay their interns do not give out formal offer letters that protect students against discrimination and sexual harassment in the work place. Other companies who pay their interns have no formal policy around sick days, which can lead to students over working and putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations. Ultimately, the conversation of unpaid internships gets talked about every year and we wanted to create a set of clear standards that can be pointed to that every company can quickly recognize as what it takes to make a fair and ethical internship.

      2. Another goal is as you mentioned to spread general awareness of the law. Currently close to 50% of internships are unpaid despite this being illegal in the vast majority of cases. Many of the companies we speak to our open to changing their intern programs from unpaid to paid once they understand what practices are common by other companies and the risk they face by having an unpaid program.

      3. Lastly, we want to give exposure to companies who are committed to offering better internships. With so many companies currently getting away with unpaid or low quality internships that do not respect students, it is important to highlight companies like Acxiom that go above and beyond and offer interns benefits including the ability to join a 401(k). Ultimately, companies who participate will be getting highlighted in the InternMatch newsletter and blog to millions of students and noted as a student friendly employer.

      Cheers,
      Nathan

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      1. Politics Debunked Monday, September 23, 2013

        re: “unpaid or low quality internships that do not respect students”

        As I posted below, it is people like you that do not respect students if you are advocating against unpaid internships in general. Respect them enough to treat them like the adults they actually are who can make their own decision as to whether the value they receive is worth their labor. Some paid jobs aren’t worth their time either, that is merely one factor that needs to be taken into account.

        If anything you would do a service to interns by advocating the ability to have unpaid internships in the places you say they are illegal, which may lead some companies to consider it worthwhile to give students a chance to learn. Consider it like letting these be treated as training programs that are offered for free rather than having the student pay for them. Yes, some won’t be worth it.. just as some colleges aren’t worth the money. That should be up to adult students to decide for themselves, not paternalistic outsiders that wish to prevent them from learning to cope with the real world where they constantly need to make tradeoffs of whether something is worth the money (or the opportunity cost of not earning money in this case).

        Those who advocate against unpaid internships are doing students no favors.

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  2. Politics Debunked Monday, September 23, 2013

    re: “over whether interns should be paid ”

    Do colleges pay students to come and learn? Obviously not. The purpose of an internship is learning, but students don’t have to pay for it except with “sweat equity” (to use a phrase from the startup world, where people often work for “free” in exchange for non-monetary value: stock). Whether the value given matches the value received is up to the student to decide… just as it is when they decide what college to pay for, or what real job to take to exchange their labor for money.

    re: “intern exploitation could be just one more symptom”

    You are treating interns like children rather than adults that are capable of choosing whether to take a job or not. Worse, if you force all interns to be paid you will eliminate many opportunities for students to intern with companies that decide it isn’t worth it to both expend the effort to help train students as well as pay them.

    The free market is all about trade, whether it is training or labor or money. Students should learn how it works, how to be good consumers as well as how to value the tradeoffs regarding the use of their own time. Unfortunately there are apparently some people out there that refuse to learn much about how our economy works and wish to impose their will on others to deprive students of opportunities.

    I suspect some people are projecting their failings onto others.If some feel they are personally not sharp enough to have decided to avoid an unpaid internship, there is no reason to project their failings onto other students and deprive them of what they may consider a great deal for an unpaid internship. If you fear some students aren’t sharp enough to make a good choice, then focus on educating them rather than hurting the majority of students that aren’t as stupid as some apparently think they are.

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