Unpaid Internships and the College Racket

Michael Orion Powell

‘Racket’ is an old slang term for organized crime. It was often used to describe criminals who took over alcohol and drug distribution, but can be used in many ways to describe the act of making a profit by making people illegitimately dependent. It is defined by Wikipedia as a system in which “the potential problem may be caused by the same party that offers to solve it, although that fact may be concealed, with the specific intent to engender continual patronage for this party.”

This is exactly what the university system does. As progressive as faculty of many universities are, or claim to be, secondary education remains a profit-making enterprise. Since college students are ‘broke’ by definition, there had to be methods created to make money off of them (in addition to typical means like tuition, fees, housing, books, etc…) – and, as a crippled economy has weakened both employers and lenders, the phenomenon of “unpaid internships” has taken off.

In a Vice article by an intern for a DC nonprofit called “The Exploited Laborers of the Liberal Media,” writer Charles Davis writes that he only made real, actual money selling Mexican food and borrowing from his parents. Nothing tangible was provided by his internship – just networking and gifts.

The unpaid internship is a strange American phenomenon that appears everywhere. Craigslist is filled with ads, full on job ads, where a small disclaimer on a dream job says “position is unpaid.” Honestly, in a fair society, I would think it would be a criminal offense to advertise yourself as an employer and then deny the fruits of employment.

In an interview with the Seattle newspaper, The Stranger, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant said, “In addition to the burden of student debt and low-wage jobs faced by most young people today, social work students are having to fight the still mostly invisible abomination of unpaid internships…They have drawn attention to their own poverty wages, and have said that they are fed up with not getting the respect they deserve—respect that begins with a living wage.”

“Invisible abomination” is quite the strong term. An unpaid internship is a very natural trap for a college student to fall in to – though it takes years of college for the concept of working full time for no money to make any sort of sense. The conditioning to accept such circumstances is often accompanied by degrees of coercion, whereas students are told internships are a necessary step to securing “gainful employment.”

Unpaid internships not only work in the long term for selfish employers, but make sure that college students become normalized to a lifestyle of working for nothing and owing money they will never really be able to pay back (student loans). Once a new graduate finds their only options are either internships that pay nothing or minimum wage jobs that wouldn’t have needed a degree in the first place, the choices are grim. This often leads to graduate school and its promise of employment within academia, which will bring on even more debt.

There are times when volunteer work or “pro-bono work” is appropriate, but that must come on your terms, not the demands of others. I volunteered for Northwest Harvest and Salvation Army with no expectation of anything except the satisfaction of helping others. I write for politically-minded outlets like the Hampton Institute not for money, but because I agree with much of what they stand for and feel honored to be connected to such causes.

Unpaid internships differ from such altruistic efforts because students are often squeezed in to them at their own personal expense and to the enrichment of individuals who are getting paid very handsomely. Per the definition of racketeering, the university system seeks to “engender continual patronage” for students and conceals that fact just like any racketeer. There is very little payoff here – even if the student eventually gets the mother of all jobs after earning a doctorate, for they have put in near decades of schooling and accumulated an infinite amount of debt. To come out of that burden and then be told that your labor is literally worth nothing is extraordinarily insulting. It is, as Kshama Sawant says, “an abomination.”


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