4 min read

Is The Era Of Unpaid Internships Over?

There is no such thing as free labour, and young India is pushing founders and HR managers to do the right thing

Internships are widely viewed as a “must-have” experience for college students worldwide. Studies show that students acquire new skills and build networks through internships that enhance their job prospects. Researchers who study students' transition from college to the workforce have established that unpaid internships are problematic. Besides the ethical questions of not paying people for their work, unpaid internships highlight deeply rooted disproportionalities and favour students from affluent families.

Unpaid internships are perpetrators of inequities in the labour market and are exploitative in nature. Factors like class, caste and economic privilege play a significant role in those who can and cannot afford to take them. Only people from privileged backgrounds end up being eligible for such opportunities. This deepens the generational wealth gap and actively obstructs the path to equal opportunities for those belonging to marginalised communities.

Working for brief periods without any stipend also functions as a financial barrier to upward mobility and future earning power.

The catch-22 is that employers look for work experience when hiring for entry-level positions, and when access to internships is inequitable, and compensation is unequal, many start behind in terms of salary level. Such challenges prevent underprivileged students from securing well-paying jobs.

Owing to the pandemic, today's students also deal with longstanding problems of an economy that continues to grapple with uncertainties and layoffs.

Many students will graduate into an economy which is already faced with high unemployment and historically linked to lowered prospects for advancement, earning and future employment. Such situations push students to settle for less. It's not about working hard to secure your dream job anymore. It is about working hard and going through a series of unpaid internships just to secure a job.

Research suggests that unpaid internships have a negative impact on career outcomes.

People with paid internships perform better at job fairs and end up with better job opportunities. The reason is that paid internships offered by companies are designed to create a pipeline of talent. The body of research also shows that unpaid interns and those without an internship receive the same number of job offers and that unpaid interns do not have an advantage over those without an internship.

Thus, it is upon all of us to end practices that perpetuate such problems. The notion of unpaid work is fundamentally unethical. Internships matter a great deal in every student's academic journey, and getting into college does not alone guarantee employment or work experience.

It is time we realise the importance of paid work and compensate people fairly for their labour.

It is the only way we can put an end to structural racism and worker exploitation. By paying their interns, organisations work towards dismantling oppressive, racialised and gendered economic structures.

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