Blog 4

Are unpaid internships ethical?

I never questioned the concept of unpaid internships. As a teenager, I thought it was a fair assumption that I didn’t have that much to bring to the table at a company, and the experience I gained was a fair exchange for my labor. I changed my mind when I got to college. I just paid over fifty thousand dollars for a year of education that has zero marketable value? I started to rethink the validity of working for now pay. This blog post,, confirmed my feelings.

At an unpaid internship, in exchange for my work the company would essentially do nothing more than put up with my presence. In the eyes of Milton Friedman, this is a great thing. Not paying interns will cut labor costs that decrease profit for shareholders. But the consequence of serving shareholders is an entire other group of people (the lowly college interns) that have been coerced into a system that treats them as disposable resource with zero exchange value. We have labor laws in this country so HOW IS THAT LEGAL?

It is legal because, according to the US Department of Labor, an unpaid internship is a legal business transaction if it meets the following criteria:

1.The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2.The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4.The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5.The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6.The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship. (

This vague criteria leaves much room for interpretation and exploitation of laborers, but does provide benefits to employers. Additionally, one can argue as Milton Friedman would, that no person in forced to work an unpaid internship. I disagree. A college student that has a degree but no paid job options can either take an unpaid job in hopes of being salaried in the future or not have a career at all. What kind of choice is that?

The blog author, Eric Glatt, outlined his own unpaid internship saga that led to a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. He had skills that he told were unmarketable (which made him question why he had paid for his education if it had no value in the capitalist market), so he found an unpaid internship because the company had a steady demand for his skills.

Although the court sided with Mr. Glatt ( and more intern lawsuits have occurred, there seems to be no comprehensive change in the quality and availability of unpaid internships so far.

12 thoughts on “Are unpaid internships ethical?

  1. I completely understand where you are coming from… we pay so much for an education, but organizations may be believe our skills are marketable enough to be able to provide a paid internship. However, depending on the internship there is a great deal of knowledge and real world experience you can not receive from a college education that you can at an organization. Looking at it this way, having an unpaid internship can be equivalent to taking a course at school free of cost.

  2. I think there is another side to what seems to be an ongoing debate about unpaid internships. Internships whether paid or not lead to new experiences and better yet, connections. The working world seems to revolve around who you know more than what you know. That being said some people literally cannot afford an unpaid internship. They need any little money that they receive from working at the local burger joint rather than gaining the connections from an unpaid internship that may help in the future. I personally do not think it is fair for an individual to miss out on an opportunity to make those connections and gain experience simply because money is a factor.

  3. Very interesting post! Personally I believe unpaid interships are unethical, and that companies are taking advantage of students around the country. Yes, it is a great experience for any of us, but I believe it is an experience that should come along with a wage. I also agree that the US Labor Department’s requirements are too vague and allow too much interpretation. This surprised me, I would imagine the law would not give companies as much leeway as it does.

  4. But to counteract Lauren’s comment, if you look at it that way you are justifying unpaid internships. The way I see it is that if we as students attend colleges throughout the year that cost upwards of $50,000, it is rational to ask for summer paying internships that can both prepare us for the workforce post college, and put into play the skills and information we have learned at college. If unpaid internships utilize these skills we have learned at college for free, isn’t this a type of exploitation of our knowledge due to a technicality, or a loophole in the U.S. department of labors policies? As interns we are doing a job, providing a skill, completing labor, and we should be getting paid for this job.

  5. This is such an interesting topic–I never really thought of it! On one hand I completely understand the argument that is made for the exploitation of college students, and on the other hand I see the value in having real-world experience and networking opportunities that an internship provides. Is it right that regardless of which side we support, we need to play the game or we will lose. There is no way around it. Internships are a necessity, unpaid or not. What does that say about our culture?

  6. Those do seem like vague criteria. Who or what monitors this to avoid abuses?

    THere is also something i’ve heard of called permatemps which is where firms keep people permanently as temp employees to avoid beneftis.

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  9. I do think UNPAID internships are completely ethical.
    Just because someone goes to college and chose to take on large loans do they deserve a job with no work experience. Experience has a larger weight than college many times. Well, maybe unless you’re a medical doctor… Here’s my story.
    I started working at a printing company at 17 in shipping for minimum wage. At 19, I ran the shipping department, At 21, entered the production department, at 26 RAN the production department. No college classes required. Barely passed high school. I was pulling in $62,000 a year at age 26 with no college loans.
    Two years after running the department, my boss hired a great interviewing guy, fresh out of college with a printing degree as a production coordinator. We had 4 coordinators that reported to me. At the time, I thought it was a good idea. He was hired at $26,000. Within a few months, we wondered what he had learned in college. I felt like I was training someone for a job that he should have been ‘trained’ for in the 4 years he just put down a pretty penny to jump into this position with NO experience! We ended up letting him go after 6 months.
    Had my company taken him in, as an UNPAID intern during his 4 years of college, with the understanding this person is here to learn, for me to train, it would have been win-win. He would understand how to put his book smarts of the basics and (hopefully) new technologies that the universities are teaching, along with a day-to-day, real-life experience of a company. He would have hopefully proven himself as a wonderful addition to our company and we would have hired him.

    Maybe unpaid internships should be looked at as auditions. Without past work experience, how else are you to prove you can do the job?

    • Thank you so much for your response.

      The point of the original post was that the guidelines for unpaid internships are vague. In some industries, the spirit of “you give us labor, we give you valuable experience” is replaced by unethical firms simply using unpaid interns for work they would OTHERWISE have paid someone for.

      If a rational and unethical firm sees they can get the SAME work paying nothing, then they might do so.

      As to the relative value of college classes versus experience, of course I applaud your success. On average though, people WITHOUT college degrees, especially women, do less well in the labor force.

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