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Unpaid Internships, Slave Labour, and Everything in Between

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Illustration by: Vishrut Sharma

You stare at your phone in nervous apprehension, checking and rechecking the service bars to ensure that you’re getting signal. This is it. After scores of emails, phone calls and interviews, you’re finally at the last step of securing an internship with a company of your choice. You’re waiting for that final confirmation call, the call which will determine whether you’ll spend the summer brooding in Firozpur or interning in Mumbai.

The phone rings. The caller asks if he’s speaking to the correct person, tells you that he’s from the HR team. Congratulations, he says, you’ve secured the internship. Your heart swells. Visions of a stellar CV float before your eyes. The HR guy continues to talk, informing you about the department you’ll be working in, the duration of your internship, and myriad other details. You’re waiting for him to mention one major detail, though, the piece of information that could change everything.

Sir? you venture to ask. What about the…stipend?

There’s an awkward silence at the other end of the line.

There’s no monetary stipend, he says, we’ll be paying you in knowledge and experience.

Your heart sinks.

Will you provide accommodation, then? you ask.

Another loaded silence. No, but we can provide lunch on workdays.

The cost of travelling, of living in Mumbai…without a stipend, your family just can’t afford it. There’s no way you can afford to take this internship.

Your CV vanishes.

Every year, thousands of students from various spheres of life apply for internships. For some, such as those studying engineering and law, internships are essentially mandatory in order to earn a degree. Even if they weren’t mandatory, the importance of internships in a student’s life is not to be undermined. Suffice it to say, in an increasingly competitive world, undergraduate students are desperate for internships.

Unfortunately, companies often use this desperation to their advantage. There is a scene in Orange Is the New Black in which a character is tasked with untangling a PR scandal that her employer has become involved in. The solution she presents is, verbatim: “Look up some local university, find some marketing majors, and launch them at the PR problem. Call it an internship with a billion-dollar corporation. Pay them nothing. Promise them school credit.” In keeping with the rest of the show, this scene exposes a grim reality: the exploitation of young working professionals to handle grunt work at the cost of a simple certificate.

My stance on the concept of unpaid internships is straightforward: interns deserve a stipend for their work.

The experience and exposure gained through an internship is, of course, invaluable, but practically speaking, it is not a good enough return on what is a massive investment of time and knowledge. The purpose of an internship stipend is not just remuneration for the work done by an intern – it is intended to cover living costs. Even a first-year student with negligible skills expends a considerable amount of effort into his/her internship. Tangibly speaking, there is also the money he/she spends on accommodation, food, and travel. So, effectively, unpaid interns are the ones paying for the internship.

One might argue that since most students actually take on internships to enhance their skills and knowledge in a way only real-life working experience can, it makes sense not to pay them. After all, college students also put time and effort into their studies - doesn’t mean they should get paid. However, there is one very major difference between an intern and a student: the intern’s work benefits his/her employer, which is why interns deserve material remuneration for their work. I reiterate - not paying an intern is simply exploitation of labor. 

Putting aside these ethical considerations, the biggest problem with unpaid internships is the role they play in deepening the class divide. According to a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Marketplace, for many employers, on-the-job experience matters more than a student’s academic record.

Therefore, a student who has undertaken better internships would have a better chance of securing a higher-paying job. Since the company refuses to pay our friend at the beginning of this article and he can’t afford to live in Mumbai without a stipend, he will be left struggling to find other ways to elevate his CV to that of his competitors. This is one hurdle his well-to-do classmate won’t have to worry about; he will go on to secure that internship, bolstering his profile and making it easier for him to land a job with a higher CTC.

For students coming from small towns and remote areas, not being able to afford living costs elsewhere is an additional barrier, as their hometown might not offer any internship opportunities even slightly similar to the ones they’d get elsewhere. This is especially pertinent for students pursuing industry-heavy streams, which could require them to undertake factory internships at various locations.

Simply put: less money, no way to cover living costs for the internship, lower-paying job, less money for their children, no way to cover living costs…through this cycle, unpaid internships put lower and middle class students at an unfair disadvantage, making it harder for them to reduce economic inequality. Therefore, when companies refuse to pay their interns, they are widening the gap between students coming from weaker financial backgrounds and those who have the privilege of being able to pay for an internship.

My request to such companies? Please stop exploiting distressed undergraduates. Those few thousands of rupees would barely make a difference to your company’s profits, but could mean the world to a struggling intern.

Posted by Srishti Mittal

Be myself? What kind of garbage advice is that?