The well to do, it seems, have discovered exploitation—at least when it comes to increasing numbers of college students being forced to have the freedom to take unpaid internships.
The New York Times hosted a debate on the topic earlier this year, under the title “Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students?” while CBC Radio reports on the rash of new lawsuits on behalf of former interns [ht: gh].
One problem with attaching the language of exploitation to unpaid internships is that it implies that people are not exploited when they are paid something, even a “market wage.” That doesn’t mean unpaid internships aren’t a problem. What we’re talking about are jobs where, because the interns are paid nothing, the rate of exploitation approaches infinity!
The other problem is that it is a bit too reminiscent of Vietnam-era prison reform. Back then, the well to do didn’t care about prison conditions until their sons were incarcerated for resisting the draft, and then they discovered how bad prison conditions really were. Now, they’re turning their attention to the fundamental injustice of unpaid internships. Again, that doesn’t mean the abuses aren’t a problem, since corporations are clearly taking advantage of current levels of unemployment to get their work done for free.
I’m all for seeing unpaid interns as being exploited—as long as we understand that hundreds of millions of other workers who are paid less than they produce are also the victims of capitalist exploitation.