Diligent, Disposable Labor: The Intern Experience

Illustration by Maddy Pease.

This summer I landed my first internship as a college student. I couldn’t have been more excited to be chosen for the opportunity, let alone for a position I was ecstatic about — writing at a women’s organization, which I have decided to keep unnamed for my own safety. The organization had a mission that I could stand behind: empowering women in industries and environments dominated by men. But I quickly became troubled during this internship. I was not being paid. I was a woman working with an organization that seeks to empower women, yet I felt anything but empowered.

The internship was completely legal despite my internal unrest. Legal action, as history shows, can do little to correct problems in a way that is beneficial to those who are not in positions of power. It is on this basis that I — and so many other young people — continue to do exploitative, unpaid labor.

Unpaid internships are made to seem less exploitative than they are because they offer “experience” and “exposure,” both of which rarely amount to an immediate, rewarding pay-off.  While my parents were able to economically support me during my internship, a full-time “experience” is not possible for people of all socioeconomic statuses. In fact, it is absolutely unrealistic for most. And, unsurprisingly, women make up three-fourths of this unpaid workforce.

Unpaid physical, mental and emotional labor defines women’s history. Today, thousands of South American and Asian women continue to experience the violence of being used as disposable, commodified labor. I mention this not to compare my internship to that hardship, but to emphasize the continuous devaluation of women’s labor as a whole.

I also wish to highlight specific issues with the international women’s organization I interned for.

This organization’s goal is to support the marginalized women in other countries who experience violence in all forms during their exploitative jobsthe women I mentioned above. They have global programs to empower women who often have little opportunity otherwise. They help women avoid extreme exploitation in the workforce, yet they found no problem with their exploitation of my labor.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience in no way mirrors the plight of migrant women in the domestic labor industry—especially considering that I am a white woman, who worked in a space far more accommodating by comparison. But this organization is entirely undermining their mission by participating in this capitalist system of unpaid labor. The women the organization advises are being “empowered” through the exploitation of other women, all while this organization is being congratulated for their supposed activism. Their desired shift toward equality is not possible under a system of change that actually perpetuates this vicious, capitalist cycle.

As young interns, we accept this status of unpaid employment. We realize that these companies are profiting off of our labor, but we know how easily we can be replaced if we choose to complain. Internships are presented as a precursor to a career, so we allow ourselves to be molded into a worker that is unable to assert themselves when they are exploited in the workforce, in hopes of gaining a steady job in the future.

It’s infuriating that our labor is considered so disposable. We are cornered and forced into participating in a system that we hate. Nevertheless, if you are considering doing an internship, it is important to know the legal requirements of companies or organizations who hire people in unpaid positions. Internships are perpetuating a workforce that is complicit in capitalist labor exploitation. As workers, we need to know what rights we have, even if they are very few, because this toxic, classed system will never look out for us in the workplace.

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