On Advocates for “Economic Justice” Advertising Unpaid/Underpaid Internships

ʾTis the season for finding an internship if you are a college student or recent college graduate. It can be an exciting and terrifying time.

Many of those internships are unpaid, though. These unpaid internships are inherently unjust[1] for a multitude of reasons: they are a way for places to get work done without having to properly compensate anyone for it, they exclude less wealthy individuals from opportunities that can give them an “in” within their desired field (because they don’t have other support so they can’t afford to work for free or for sub-minimum wage), and they leave employees (the unpaid interns) with no recourse if they get injured at work, to name a few.

That being said, such behavior is about what I would expect from a corporation whose main goal is to have as large of a profit margin as possible.

But from organizations or elected officials that advertise “economic justice” as one of their main missions? Seriously? You have got to be kidding me.

Such things are quite common with economic justice organizations. I have come across internships that advertise a summer of advocating for economic justice on one hand, but don’t carry that out themselves because they pay little to nothing to their interns on the other hand. It’s actually quite common for economic justice organizations with millions in donations, ranging from the Sargent Shriver Center for Poverty Law[2] to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice,[3] to advocate for economic justice while having unpaid internships. By advocating for economic justice but not carrying out that message through actually paying interns, those messages of economic justice come across as disingenuous.

It’s also quite common to see unpaid internships from elected officials who talk about economic justice and equality. While some people fess up (sort of) and say that a posting for an unpaid internship was made “in error,”[4] some don’t care, and others (including some I know) will argue that they want interns to be paid but that they simply don’t have the budget to pay their interns. While the last of these three sentiments comes across as well-intended, such a response should not let the elected official who doesn’t pay interns (especially elected officials who talk about economic justice) off the hook. To the contrary, if the paying of interns is a funding issue, maybe elected officials should consider advocating funding for pay for interns with the same sort of vigor that they have when advocating for funding for pay raises to give to themselves.

If any of these suggestions make advocates of economic justice cringe, #SorryNotSorry. Unpaid internships are an issue of economic justice. Anyone who wants to not just “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk,” on economic justice should do everything in their power to pay their interns. Especially if the money is there to pay their interns.


[1] Just to set the record straight, my ire is directed at places that have money and can afford to pay six figures to their CEOs but “can’t afford to pay the interns.” It’s not directed at places where the money is scant and can afford only modest salaries (or no salaries at all) for even the higher-ups, places that are really driven by volunteers.

[2] https://povertylaw.org/files/jobs/Summer%20Legal%20Intern.pdf

[3] This listing is from 2017, so I hope the organization’s policy has changed in the past two years: https://nclej.org/jobs-and-internships/internships

[4] Yes, I’m talking about Chuck Schumer’s office: https://www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-slams-future-colleagues-congress-for-employing-unpaid-interns-living-wage-2018-12