Monday, July 6, 2009

that formerly clinking clanking sound

John Scalzi on internships:

What bothers me about unpaid internships is not fundamentally that they are unpaid (although that really isn’t a good thing), but that the purpose of internships seems to have changed in an uncomfortable way: it’s gone from a way to train students in practical real-world application of skills they’ve learned in college to a way to plug, for free, actual skill gaps in one’s work force. I don’t doubt interns learn something in the latter scenario, but what I suspect companies learn is that there’s little point in hiring for certain roles and tasks because there’s always a new crop of interns. Thus begins a baseline expectation for business that some labor is always meant to be free, and so long as they give themselves legal/moral cover by calling that work an “internship,” there’s no reason not to exploit it.

14 comments:

benmoraes said...

What is the definition of work? I'm home now, reading and writing, without knowing if I'll get published or not. But I'm doing stuff with a goal in mind. I guess that's work too.

Hey, I have an english-speaking blog. Ok, the blog does'nt speak, but... you know what I mean.

benmoraes.wordpress.com

SnowLeopard said...

I'm not giving anyone legal advice, but in the US, at least, private for-profit companies generally can't offer unpaid internships -- that's a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and specifically the minimum wage laws. Only government agencies and private non-profit charities can employ volunteers, and even they are subject to fairly rigid constraints. So without more context, I find it hard to understand the basis for the writer's complaint.

Helen DeWitt said...

snow leopard - are you sure? my understanding is that most publishing internships are unpaid. I'm pretty sure the internships at Harper's are, for instance - and I suppose Harper's is doing its best to make a profit in a cruel and uncertain world.

SnowLeopard said...

I'm reasonably sure. I can't comment on the specific situation at Harper's, not knowing all the details, and it's possible that some exception applies that I'm not thinking of. (Also, I advise and represent management, so it wouldn't do to criticize a specific company without a solid basis for doing so.) I would have to investigate thoroughly before agreeing to let an employer proceed with such a scheme, because they could find being wrong to be extremely expensive.

Andrew Gelman said...

I think Harper's is nonprofit and is run by a foundation.

Mithridates said...

I don't see anything on the Harper's website about it being non-profit. My googling has turned anything up either.

Maggie said...

I believe companies can legally get away with not paying interns if it's for academic credit. They are doing work as schoolwork, but apparently none of it may be work at all.

SnowLeopard said...

Maggie is correct that one of the exceptions covers some situations where school credit is available, though I take mild exception to the phrase "get away with": when my clients have approached me with this sort of issue, it's always been in the context of wanting to offer job experience, a favorable employment reference, and maybe even a small stipend to, say, the homeless, struggling students, or the mentally challenged, without the expense or administrative complications of formal employment. They're always surprised and a bit indignant when I explain that this is problematic. Even for the limited student exception, there are several criteria that need to be met, including that the work done principally benefit the student/trainee and not the employer. That doesn't seem consistent with the quoted blog post, which suggested that some for-profit employers are seeking to avoid paying for all their labor costs. Reflecting on the law and the business practices of my own clients, I'm having trouble coming up with a scenario that would be anywhere nearly as widespread as the post seems to imply.

Andrew Gelman said...

From the Harper's website:

"In 1980, when the parent company announced that Harper’s Magazine would cease publication, John R. (Rick) MacArthur and his father, Roderick, urged the boards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Company to make a grant of assets and funds to form the Harper’s Magazine Foundation. The Foundation is today an entirely independent organization--unaffiliated with other philanthropies, and solely dedicated to promoting Harper's Magazine as an independent voice in American culture."

I don't know that this Foundation is nonprofit, but I assumed it was.

cee said...

Snowleopard, would you expect your clients to approach you saying "basically what we want is to have someone to do a temp's job, to do data entry and tea-making and maybe proofreading and a largely cosmetic research project into how we can widen our brand, but we don't want to have to pay them the money you pay a temp, and even better if they scramble to impress us on the off-chance we'll give them an actual paying job or even just a reference and some relevant experience to write about in a covering letter"? Of course they're going to frame it as philanthropy! In fact I have no doubt they think of it in two-birds-with-one-stone terms. They get someone to cover a bit of the monkey work without needing to pay more than travel expenses (if properly receipted), plus the proud sensation of having given a bright young kid a leg up on the career scale! win-win, eh.

Perhaps it is that internship culture is more advanced in the UK than the US. There certainly doesn't seem to be the same legal barriers to the unpaid internship. Look at internship listings in London and you find that half the time they require the prospective intern to already have experience in the relevant field! Or maybe want the intern to work 9-5 for three months while getting nothing more than travel expenses (perhaps the cost of a sandwich if they're lucky) as remuneration. Which of course excludes that whole group of people who just can't afford to pay the rent (especially somewhere like london) for those three months of unpaid work, especially when there's no promise of a job further down the line.

(the classic of this genre is of course the UN HQ internship, whose criteria for eligibility include having US health insurance or the means to get it, being able to pay the cost of travel to New York from wherever you are, and also that "You are able to cover the costs of travel, accommodation, as well as living expenses of the internship (approx. US$5,000).")

SnowLeopard said...

Tax-exempt organizations generally have to file IRS Form 990 annually, and these are publicly available so as to guide donors in evaluating recipients for their contributions. (Google "form 990 filings" to get started; the first site I came across required registration, but not all of them do.) Harpers Magazine Foundation is indeed such a filer, with the all-caps mission statement of "PROVIDING LITERARY WORKS OF EXCELLENCE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND PUBLISHING THE WORKS OF UNKNOWN WRITERS WHO DEMONSTRATE EXCEPTIONAL LITERARY TALENT." Which means they can have volunteers, as long as, among other things, volunteers are not doing the same work as paid employees.

SnowLeopard said...

cee, you're correct that my clients' subjective or professed motivations are sometimes irrelevant to my legal analysis of their employment practices. But few employers are as sinister or cynical as many people like to claim, and most are genuinely receptive to my counsel. I can't comment on whether UK practices regarding unpaid internships are more "advanced" than those in the US, and am not a legal historian, but wonder whether the US may have had historical reasons as well as pragmatic ones for wanting to eradicate the practice of unpaid labor -- reasons that may not have applied in the UK.

Helen DeWitt said...

Hm. Well, I don't know what Scalzi had in mind when he wrote his post. It may be that things are better in the US than he suggested. A while back I asked my UK editor if they might have some work for Ilya, and she said there wouldn't be anything that paid, because so much was done these days by armies of unpaid interns. (She's at Random House. If it's not making profits it's not for want of trying.) In Germany the papers often run pieces on the spread of the unpaid Praktikum; they lead less and less often to a paid job, precisely because there is an inexhaustible supply of people willing to take work as a Praktikum. I'm told something similar obtains in France. But I'd certainly hesitate to argue with SL about the position in the US, given that one of us has first-hand knowledge of the law and it isn't me.

Mithridates said...

Andrew--I guess that "unaffiliated with other philanthropies" line does make it sound like it's nonprofit. I just wonder why they don't come out and say Harper's is a non-profit organization. Well, we can probably agree that the craziest thing in that About section is that in the 70s they "devoted a full issue to Norman Mailer's 'The Prisoner of Sex.'"