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What to do about abuse in internships

Author: Alan Brady
Published: Sep 12 2012

While much of the world would consider requiring a person to work for free to be a violation of human rights in itself, we here in the US consider it to be a normal rite of passage for college graduates. Everyone from local news and radio stations to the White House "employs" unpaid interns. Since most businesses wouldn't turn away free labor internships are a convenient way to get experience in an industry. If you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of working in such a position it's important to keep a weather eye out for common intern abuses. Interns are often targeted for abuse because they tend to be unaware of their rights and are less protected under the law than paid employees.

Sexual Harassment

Interns often find themselves in a position where they feel highly pressured to succeed and are desperate to please. Knowing that your future hangs in the balance puts you in a dangerously vulnerable position. While most people will treat you with at least some modicum of respect, it's not too uncommon for an authority figure to make a pass at you and pressure you sexually or begin harassing you. Depending on the severity of the case you should contact either a lawyer or the police immediately. Never ever allow sexual harassment to go unreported, silently hoping for it to go away can destroy your life.

Useless Work

Nearly all internships involve some pointless labor like doing coffee runs or running an errand here or there for your supervisors. There's a real problem when you find yourself not actually learning anything. Many internships today are not geared toward helping you learn about your craft so much as getting a warm body to do menial labor for free. If you find yourself in this type of situation you should immediately contact your boss' superior and complain. If you find yourself rebuffed you should quit immediately because you're wasting your time and money.

Unsafe Conditions

An unpaid intern is often not properly documented and almost never properly insured. This means that if you get injured at work you can't get worker's compensation. If your employer doesn't use paid employees to do dangerous things like climbing ladders to replace light bulbs or carrying heavy loads then they can avoid increased insurance premiums. This gives them incentive to use unpaid and undocumented labor. If you find yourself subjected to dangerous conditions you should contact a labor lawyer.

Ridiculous Working Hours

More and more companies use interns as a cheap (free) alternative to normal employees. Increasingly often you'll find yourself working a real job for free. Even worse, some companies force interns to work overtime, also without pay, in violation of federal and state minimum wage laws and overtime laws.

The best measure to take against these sorts of unethical business practices is to educate both students and employers about the rights of their workers. If you find yourself being abused, your first course of action should always be to confront the guilty party as well as their superior in writing, preferably email for traceability. Outline the way in which your rights are being violated and give an ultimatum for how long they have to respond before you'll take legal action. If you're lucky the guilty party will, on their own initiative or by force, revise their behavior work to make it right. In the event that your rights continue to be violated you should take immediate and decisive legal action. Even if you don't win it will serve to draw attention to unethical business practices and help to publicly mark the company as an abusive workplace.

Alan Brady is a passionate blogger who spends his time researching and writing about the economy, recent job market trends and business. He is a writer for the labor attorneys database, which supports ethical treatment of workers.

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