Free labor

Posted: 26 November 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

There’s the euphemism of free wage-labor. And then there’s actual free labor: the unpaid internship.

As Paul Campos [ht: rdw] explains,

Traditionally, the most prestigious job a law school graduate can get straight out of school is a federal judicial clerkship. Holders of these one-year positions are usually much sought-after by big law firms and other desirable employers, and the competition among law students for federal clerkships is ferocious.

Even at elite law schools, only students at or near the top of class have a reasonable shot at a federal clerkship. In addition, now many young lawyers with sterling resumes have begun applying for clerkships. The result is that any federal judge will be deluged with hundreds of highly qualified candidates for an open position.

In response, the government has created an online application site for judicial clerks, featuring strict rules about when candidates can apply and when clerkship offers can be made. William Martinez, a federal judge in Denver, is currently using the site to solicit applications for a standard year-long clerkship in his chambers.

While the requirements for the job look quite ordinary – excellent academic credentials required, two or more years of legal practice experience preferred – the position’s salary is not. More precisely, this job features a salary of zero: “This position is a gratuitous service appointment,” the posting announces, while going on to make clear that the successful candidate will waive any claim to salary, benefits or any other compensation, and that he or she can be fired at any time, for any reason, or no reason, during the course of the year-long appointment.

It gets better: Although Judge Martinez isn’t going to pay the successful applicant, and reserves the right to fire this person arbitrarily at any time, the judge is asking whoever takes the job “to morally commit to the position for one year.” (In other words, don’t think for a moment it’s OK to quit this non-paying job just because a paying job comes along.) As an added extra bonus, the posting states unequivocally that “there is no possibility of the position turning into a paid position with Judge Martinez.”

This is the practical endpoint of a social system that has produced a vast oversupply of bright, ambitious, hardworking and highly educated young people, who are increasingly desperate for any sort of employment that bears a vague resemblance to the kind of work they thought they were being trained to do. The zero-salary job is merely the logical extension of what has been called “the internship rip-off,” which allows employers to exploit unpaid labor under the guise of educational training.

A few students manage to obtain paid internships. (These turn out to be a kind of low-paid apprenticeship.) Others, when you take living expenses into account, are going to be paying for the “privilege” of working for free. And still others—the vast majority, I’d guess—do not have the wherewithal to take any kind of internship, whether poorly paid or unpaid, because they need to work during the summer to make money to pay for their education and avoid going even deeper into debt.

  1. Monica Lewinsky was an unpaid intern too.

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