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August 19, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Letters From a Young Contrarian

Unpaid internships, while basically unheard of in New Zealand outside of the creative sector, are a hot-button issue in America at the moment. The concept is simple: ad agencies, fashion boutiques, and the odd professional firm employ freshly graduated students for a summer, to give them a chance to prove themselves in the real world. Perhaps ‘employ’ is the wrong word here: the interns do not get paid. Interns give their time freely in the hope that the skills and experience they get will translate to job opportunities in the future.

The system has become a controversial one lately. Opponents believe the internships are exploitative of those who get them, and that they entrench inequality, because the only people who can afford to work without being paid are spoilt rich kids who depend on Mummy and Daddy to support them financially. On the face of it, these appear to be strong arguments. But there are three reasons why they’re not.

The first is the right to volunteer. Most of the work you do is unpaid: mowing the lawns, washing your dishes, laundering your clothes. Mothers work 80 hours a week doing the cooking and cleaning but are never paid a cent. Facebook contains the largest volunteer force in the world: people writing and recording songs, posting videos of themselves, running Walk in Wardrobe. There is no principled difference between these forms of volunteering and working for a business for free. If your type of volunteering is at a business, you should be allowed and encouraged to do that.

The second is that money isn’t the only thing you can be paid in. I don’t get paid for my fortnightly column in Salient. So why do I bother doing it? Same reason mothers and bloggers and bands who are starting out do: I get paid in something other than money. I get enjoyment out of it. The experience is something I can put on my CV to get a future, paid job. I feel good when my friends compliment me on my writing. Volunteering is worth a volunteer’s time; otherwise, they simply wouldn’t do it. It’s difficult to see how interns, who enter into the job freely and who can leave at any time, are being exploited in these jobs.

The third is that it is bizarre to say that parents can’t use their wealth to better the lot of their children. Perhaps it is true that only the wealthy can do these jobs. But since when do we prevent the well-off from using their money to give their children the best shot at life? Yes, it sucks that poor people might not be able to get these internships, but poor people also can’t afford private school, or tutoring for their kids, or the best running shoes, or summer school, or the Scouts club, all of which better a child’s chances of succeeding as an adult. To argue for the banning of these things is to be spitefully jealous.

To be against voluntarily unpaid internships is to be against doing any volunteering without being paid for it, to have a weird obsession with money, and to reject the idea that people can use their money to better themselves. For shame.

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