The labor market doesn’t just dangle well-paid, comfortable, apparently enjoyable work before the masses; it very carefully stokes and cultivates their hope. It does this in numerous industries by establishing tiered systems of work. Tiered, or two-track, labor forces abound across sectors from professional sports (minor- vs. major-league athletes) to academia (adjunct vs. tenured or tenure-track faculty) to office work and manufacturing (temporary vs. full-time employees). Workers in the top tiers frequently earn decent salaries, have stable, comfortable working conditions, and enjoy benefits such as premium employee-sponsored health care and paid leave. Bottom-tier workers are a more casual labor force, with contract or part-time schedules, drastically lower earnings, and fewer, if any, benefits or labor protections.
It is conservatively estimated that half of the 1 to 2 million interns in America today work without pay or for less than the federal minimum wage, when their work is broken down by hour. There currently exist vast numbers of people working for little or no money, and these very people are exhorted to express gratitude and happiness while doing so. It’s worth pausing to consider how very astonishing and yet how very common this situation is. Under capitalism, there is hardly a more perfect figure than the grateful unpaid worker.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, an intern is an employee, however temporary or inexperienced, and entitled to minimum wage. Yet hundreds of thousands of interns in the United States — one-fourth to one-half of them — work without pay or for less than minimum wage. Internships were a rite of passage just for young doctors. Beginning in the 1930s, the practice spread to other white-collar fields, from public administration to insurance. Still, even in the early 1980s, internships remained rare — as few as 3 percent of college students completed one before graduation. Today, that figure is as high as 75 percent according to the College Employment Research Institute. Between one-third and half will get no compensation for their efforts, a study by the research firm Intern Bridge found. Although earlier internships tended to be paid, the internship boom of the past three decades has seen working without compensation go mainstream. And internship experience is now a prerequisite for many white-collar professions. Unpaid interns are not employees, according to the courts, even if they have worked full time for a year in the same office as paid workers. Without legal standing, many interns are unable to claim basic workplace protections.
It’s a prerequisite many can’t afford. Too often, paid internships are the preserve of well-heeled students at four-year colleges with family connections. A 2010 study by the research firm Intern Bridge found that students from families earning more than $120,000 per year were more likely to be in paid internships at for-profit companies than students with family income below $80,000, who were more heavily represented in unpaid positions.
Medical residents, minor-league athletes, adjunct faculty, temp workers, and, of course, interns, in many cases, perform work close to or even identical to that of much better compensated colleagues in the same sectors. While part-time, casual work suits some workers, it’s clear that the majority of these workers strive to enter the top tier and labor in the bottom tier with the expectation that they are at the beginning of a career pathway. Certain bottom-tier workers, including medical residents and trade apprentices, may reasonably expect to graduate into the top tier, and often there is a tangible separation of experience and skill level distinguishing them from top-tier workers, even if they occasionally perform the same tasks. In many cases, bottom-tier workers often bear the same credentials and assume the same risks as their better-paid colleagues. Or, when differences in experience and credentials do exist, they don’t necessarily justify the vast inequality of pay and labor conditions.
Employers have harnessed the full power of free-market competition to exploit labor structures that exploit increasing amounts of workers. A few plum jobs at the top for which increasing numbers of bottom-tier workers compete ever more desperately guarantees a cheap and disempowered workforce overall.
A report, “The State of Homelessness in America 2015,” aroused the blog’s attention:
“On a single night in January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness—meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.” Included in that staggering figure were 216,197 people who were members of homeless family units. Nearly 50,000 of those documented as homeless were United States veterans. 6.4 million “households in poverty” are paying spending more than 50% of their income on housing 7.7 million Americans have moved in with family and friends…an increase of 3.7% from the prior year…a 67% increase since 2007.
To be sure, the unpaid internship is only part of a phenomenon that includes the growing numbers of temps, freelancers, adjuncts, self-employed “entrepreneurs” and other low-wage or precariously employed workers who live gig by gig.