We Need to Talk About Unpaid Internships

During my graduation, I came across the term ‘internship’ for the first time. However, what I did not know until my postgraduation in Delhi was that internships were not only meant for students from science or commerce background – but also for students from social sciences and humanities.

Coming from a small village in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, I am the first in my family, and probably in my village, to study at an English medium school. I was fortunate enough to go to good schools and take my career forward by studying at some of the best Indian universities.

After my postgraduation, when I took a gap year and applied for several internships, I found that most of them were unpaid. Not knowing how to accept those offers in a costly city like Delhi, I returned home.

Internships aim to introduce students or freshers to professional training with job-like experiences. Workplaces that provide unpaid internships usually promise better working experiences, letters of recommendation, and other compensations – except monetary remuneration. Perks gained through unpaid internships might be very helpful in building a career, but I don’t agree a work experience which denies monetary remuneration.

If a job-like experience is a boon for a trainee, then knowing the monetary value of their labour is also a necessity. This would help the youth better understand the job market and prepare them for future jobs.

Also read: Interns Don’t Live on Sunshine and Air, They Need Money Too

In today’s world, if internships are a prerequisite of being a successful job applicant, then it is also something everyone can’t avail – especially students like me coming from small villages with little knowledge about internships or the job market.

For one, it is very difficult or almost impossible for students from lower middle class backgrounds to settle far away from home for unpaid internships. This leaves many eligible students inexperienced at the professional level, thus making them less eligible for future job application.

If lack of internship or experience is a reasonable criterion to reject a candidate, then there are chances that many places only recruit applicants who have done internships.

This not only shows the existing inequality at workplaces, but also how unpaid internships serve to further widen the gap. Only those who have the privilege to afford it primarily snag the much coveted internships, and this also arguably determines who gets ahead and does well in life. This eventually plays a major role later on in careers as to who gets to voice their opinions or who gets to appoint employees and so on and so forth. All this points to how the system fails to facilitate class mobility.

It should also be noted that eligibility criteria for unpaid internships never takes into account the applicant’s financial capability. Hence, the final selection depends on the kind of education that the applicant has undertaken over the years. As English commentator Murray Walker once said, “It all comes down to money.” Thus, it is quite an unfortunate truism that wealth creates more wealth and poverty creates more poverty.

The applicants, on the other hand, have their hopes shattered that education would create better opportunities for them. The situation is worse for first-generation learners or female applicants as they mostly have to sit home doing unpaid internships or just choose to stay unemployed.

Also read: Can Intern Culture be Less Exploitative?

In the case of students, they not only have to put up with family pressure but also come across taunts about their choices in career and life. This severely affects their self-confidence and in some cases, it also affects their mental health.

In defence of unpaid internships, a lot of people talk about the benefits of remote or virtual unpaid internships. However, they irrationally depart from the idea that whether remote or otherwise, an internship is a job-like experience demanding different forms of human labour. Therefore, no human labour should be used for free.

Interns should be given minimum wages. Providing monetary remuneration will enable students from poor economic backgrounds to become financially independent and support their family. This would be a big initiative towards curbing inequality and uplifting students from backward classes in a diverse country like India.

Through my internship experiences, I have realised that unpaid internships are mostly found in the social science sector. Policy research or any other social science research at various think tanks, governmental, non-governmental, ministerial institutions are more or less unpaid. In contrast, internships in the field of science and commerce are well paid. This also hints towards the bias of society towards the social science sector and how such work is undervalued.

In the past two years, I have done both paid and unpaid internships. All the unpaid internships were ‘work from home’. My experience made me realise the importance of financial and social capital. I understood how the lack of these capitals prevents a student like me, in being able to create them, even if you have the other eligibility criteria.

People should look into the bigger chain of social inequality. We should start questioning the societal failure to provide equal opportunity. It has also become necessary to start a conversation about unpaid internship in order to minimise exploitation and the devaluation of human labour and rights.

Laboni Mahanta has did her postgraduation in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Featured image credit: Jack Michaud/Unsplash