Do interns need a Bill of Rights? Maybe the New York Times could take the lead

Another day, another exploited intern. This time, it’s the New York Times raising awareness about the legions of unpaid young people who work their hearts out in media or fashion and get shafted in return.

The tales of woe described in the Times echo those described in the book Intern Nation and in a recent lawsuit filed by a Harpers Bazaar intern.

The problem here is obvious: employers are using a dreadful job market to take advantage of young people desperate for an opportunity. But what’s the solution?

“Sue the bastards” is not a practical option in most cases given the costs of a lawsuit and interns’ fear of harming their future careers. A law requiring employers to pay interns is unlikely to work either; many offices would respond by deciding to eliminate interns altogether.

A better answer might be a bill of rights for interns in which employers agreed to uphold the basic quid pro quo of an internship: free work in exchange for mentorship and experience.

For many young people, the biggest tragedy of the intern economy is not the lack of wages (though this a drag) or being asked to make coffee (which never killed anyone). Instead, it is employers who fail to provide dignity or any useful work experience.

It’s time for companies to adopt a standard best practices document in which they pledge, in the absence of wages or a guaranteed job, to provide interns with real work, contacts and mentoring.

So far, no one has stepped forward to do so. School career offices, which should stand up for their students, have so far ducked the issue. Those contacted for this story said it was an issue between students and employers.

In their absence, perhaps the New York Times (s nyt) could take the lead and suggest a model “intern contract” setting out what employers should pledge in return for the free work so many of them are now taking. (The Times may also want to get its own house in order — my own experience there in 2010 was similar to those described in its recent story).