Here’s why unpaid internships are such a problem

Excuse me, I’m working for you, too.

“So do you have like, uh, a major?” interrupted the illustrator. That morning when he had walked into the office, he veered straight for his computer. No interest in the unfamiliar young body in the office. Just an intern.

I decided I wanted to try my own hand at a career I could possibly more-than-stand (if you haven’t heard, we do live under capitalism) when my undergraduate tenure was already at its end. Whatever ‘in’ there may have been at university, into the carefully gatekept and strangling media industry, had already passed for me.

I was—and still am—luckier than most. I could go home with my degree (to New Jersey, which is only or inconveniently a train ride into New York City). I can live in my parents’ house and eat my parents’ food, make money irregularly and watch my savings shrink, all the while blindly applying to hundreds of jobs and internships and fellowships I likely will not get, all in hopes of breaking into an industry that appears every day to be at capacity.

“If you’re really serious, the only way is [DEBT, DEBT, DEBT]” was the flat advice from the director of NYT fellowships and internships, whose Twitterfeed is riddled with excitement, promotions, and advice for new journalists, or the 13 young people who have already managed to snag a possible livelihood.

“There are no jobs in journalism!” joke high-profile staff writers to their high-profile writer friends everyday on Twitter. “Go away if you know what’s good for you!” Oops.

So when I was offered an internship with an independent, ‘leftist’ publisher, after receiving more and more proof that there truly are no writing jobs [for me], I accepted eagerly. At the end of the interview, an editor mentioned casually the position was unpaid before describing a Christmas party four months away.

When it comes to internships, not all of them are unpaid. In a Fall 2017 issue of CUTE Magazine, Amélie Poirier and Camille Tremblay-Fournier describe the gendered nature of labor that is deemed valuable enough to pay for. Certainly, internships in engineering or computer science are “almost always paid.” Perhaps, the issue is industry money. After all, new declarations of journalism’s approaching demise are announced daily. Presumably, independent book publishers sacrifice the potential financial security of corporate collaboration.

And yet, Poirier and Tremblay-Fournier argue that who exactly gets paid for their work is no coincidence. As of 2010, in the US 77% of unpaid interns are women. As my supervisor introduced me to the editors, publicists, and accountants in our small office, he quickly came upon Christina, a young woman about my age. Another intern, I was told, though one who had interned throughout the summer as well. An hour later, in our first staff meeting, our publisher re-introduced Christina to me. “She’s, uh, sort of an intern, but now paid as a part-time freelancer. Like a paid intern.”

I looked around to see if anyone else, in this supposedly leftist publishing house, might wince at Christina and I existing at the table side-by-side. No one batted an eye. Of course interns need to earn payment, and Christina has proved herself.

I don’t think this is a question of money. Perhaps this is publishing culture, but new and old books are shipped out all day—gratís—on a moment’s notice, to whomever may desire a copy. My internship program is not new, in fact my publishing house relies on the seasonal fresh-faces of “college students or recent graduates.” This semester, there has been a struggle to reproduce their youthful cohort, and apologetic expressions form on the faces of full-time staff unloading their clerical duties onto the current three (one paid and two…not) interns. It seems to me that, if the issue were money, a truly independent company would not encourage free labor. It seems to me that, if the issue were money, a company would not hire staff they could not afford to pay.

Rather, the office presumption seems to be that we interns are their occasional students who are conveniently around all day to mail press orders, answer phones, arrange travel, research potential reviewers, walk around the street corner to the book basement, proofread e-blasts, type up hard copies (only sometimes…this is a special task), and bind manuscripts. I get $120 dollars a month for travel apparently—at the end of month, which I have yet to receive to pay my train tab (just kidding, there are no train tabs).

An actual student, contend Poirier and Tremblay-Fournier, is producing value. They are reproducing the workforce, along with giving professors someone to teach and colleges a reason to exist. Perhaps a small amount of editorial knowledge is trickling down into my equally small, young brain, but I do not think it is the most radical thing in the world to desire payment and recognition for building the foundation of this cute little bookstore. If payment were radical…do you think a leftist company might go for it?

I can afford to swallow compensation for 25 hours of work a week, and the actual self-investments sobbing for me to come back. My GRE whispers to me all day, I’m sure you’ll do fine. My graduate school applications sink further into my Chrome tabs, you’re coming back when you can focus. Canceled shifts and paid jobs smugly move on without me. Most and many others, the people that would transform an industry that is overwhelmingly white and suckish, cannot bear the dependency on an not-paying employer, and cannot eat or pay rent or have a baby or get ill with hopes of future payment. 

All of this might just seem an unfortunate experience, one I have certainly and stupidly volunteered myself for, but the constant implication that people at their place of work are “resisting,” are doing The Good Work of Good People simply by turning a profit, is grinding. Congratulations are offered around the table, to staff for having done the good work of advocating for justice at the last book fair. Were I written into a book, I would be more real.