Hoyt: Inequality and Unpaid Labor
By Hannah Hoyt, Contributing Columnist
Published on Wednesday, May 30, 2012
As Spring term comes to an end, the discussion of summer jobs rises to the forefront of our conversations. For a school that is dominated by an attitude of academic nonchalance, summer jobs are surprisingly rife with connotations and labels. While our majors might not speak to our post-college ambitions or our academic success at Dartmouth, summer jobs, for better or worse, tell our classmates about our aspirations for the future.
The playing field for summer jobs, however, is deeply polarized at Dartmouth. While Dartmouth students will spread out across the globe to work for a variety of organizations this summer, only some students can take on the financial burden of an unpaid internship. Those who cannot are restricted to jobs that can provide them with a sufficient stream of income.
Although unpaid internships are not fundamentally wrong — it makes sense that low-budget non-profits rely on having unpaid summer interns — the line of legality often becomes blurry when for-profit organizations hire unpaid interns. Federal labor laws stipulate that unpaid internships at for-profit organizations are legal if and only if the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s work and if the intern’s training is “similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction.” But too often unpaid internships straddle the line of menial labor or lack educational content, thereby crossing over to the territory in which an individual should be compensated for his or her work.
Unpaid internships also perpetuate a concerning cycle of inequality. Only those students with the financial resources to work for free are able to take unpaid internships and use their summers to build their resumes. Other students have to take jobs that satisfy their financial needs but not necessarily their career ambitions. In the for-profit fields in which unpaid internships dominate, a summer of unpaid labor is often the key to attaining a paid job down the road. The inequality of opportunity that these types of internships create is fundamentally against the ethos of Dartmouth — an institution that rewards merit, not wealth.
Dartmouth has tried to combat the pervasive growth of unpaid internships among for-profit organizations. The College does not offer academic credit for unpaid internships, a strategy many companies use to avoid the burden of insurance and proper compensation. Additionally, Career Services has imposed a baseline salary for for-profit companies participating in the recruiting process, and funding for non-profit internships is available through a variety of academic departments and institutes across campus. However, the College can further ameliorate the inequality perpetuated by unpaid internships by increasing the transparency and funding available for non-profit internships and by taking a formal stance against unpaid internships at for-profit companies.
Right now, dozens of centers, departments and organizations on campus dispense funding to students for non-profit work. Although some efforts have been made to centralize information about these internships and standardize application procedures and dates, we need a database of funding opportunities — a centralized digital hub and perhaps even a physical office, not just a haphazard set of links to antiquated web pages.
Furthermore, the College needs to take a consistent stance toward unpaid internships at for-profit companies. Right now, Career Services provides funding for unpaid internships at for-profit companies for work in “advertising, public relations or publishing” and “children’s educational media/literature.” These awards should be redirected to unpaid work at non-profits. Although the amount of money shifted would be nominal, this change would bring consistency to the College’s actions toward unpaid internships at for-profit organizations.
To make this change sustainable, the College needs to ally with its peer institutions to take a firm stance against the inequality created by unpaid internships by preventing for-profit companies from advertising unpaid internships through their career services departments. Although this change would cut down on the amount of opportunities that are advertised through each university’s career website, it would signal to for-profit companies that their reliance on unpaid student labor perpetuates inequality.
If we stand back and let unpaid internships at for-profit companies continue without taking a stance, we are complicit in creating inequality in employment opportunities. We cannot continue to pay for the privilege of working for free. Instead, we must demand change. We have the authority and credibility to affirm the value of student labor and the equality of career opportunities, and it is our obligation to act on this opportunity.