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Opinion | Unpaid internships are exploitative to less fortunate or unwealthy students

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Getting an internship any time soon? Been through awful unpaid internships sorting paperwork and fetching coffee for the ruling elite of office life?

Internships can offer great opportunities, learning experiences, and open windows to potential full-time job opportunities after graduation. However, some companies exploit college students for their own gain, offering them next to nothing in terms of experience or pay.

Some would argue that unpaid internships are appropriate because college students have no real experience at the company they are joining and they don’t even have a college degree yet. However, these are often adults or students who have gotten their lives and financial stability handed to them on a silver spoon.

Unpaid internships that are beneficial to experience and offer growth to students create an experience gap and help continue inequality. Students who must pay their own rent, for their own groceries and other obligations have no option to work unpaid 15 to 40 hours over a semester or a summer. Meanwhile, richer kids get experience and a foot in the door because their family can afford to pay their way for life, or to send them away to big cities for extravagant internships and pay for housing.

Paid internships in fields like the social sciences, writing, and the arts are also extremely rare, promoting these fields to be continually ruled by the already elite or wealthy.

Employers that want to cut costs feel no shame in hiring students for free, no matter how much school they have completed, how prestigious their academic standing is, or how much field experience they already have acquired.

However, small steps were made this month to benefit unpaid interns.

In March, the U.S. Department of Labor established new rules for employers who hire unpaid interns. The rules are as follows.

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar 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.

However, this doesn’t ensure that these rules will be followed or enforced. The bottom line is that internships are real labor. They accomplish goals for companies. And unpaid labor is exploitative, no matter who it’s done for.

There’s about 1.5 million internships in the U.S. — about half of the United States’ internships are unpaid. This needs to change if we want to ensure that the investment of higher education offers everyone similar opportunities.