In an interview for New Left Project, Intern Nation author Ross Perlin outlined the next step in pushing the UK government to take action against exploitative and exclusionary internships:
One thing that needs to happen is for interns themselves to make a show of force. If a large number of interns gathered in one place outside of an employer that does this sort of thing, or outside of Parliament, or Congress in the US, I think that in itself would have a significant effect. As it is, the problem seems relatively abstract to a lot of people. Interns see themselves as individuals or free agents, making their own decisions, not really thinking more as a group.
Last week, the ball got rolling. On Wednesday, Ross joined the National Union of Students and campaign groups Intern Aware and Internocracy to present the Intern Bill of Rights in a rally outside parliament to 'Imagine a Day Without Interns.' Interns and allies then gathered at a meeting in the House of Commons to discuss ways of putting an end to the current system of rights-abusing, privilege-entrenching internships.
On Wednesday June 1st, WNYC's Brian Lehrer spoke to Ross Perlin on air about his new book Intern Nation and the good the bad and the ugly of internships.
Several listeners called in to join the discussion and share their own diverse experiences with internships, and you can read additional comments to the segment by visiting wnyc.org.
Are interns destroying the value we place in work? Can we increase social mobility by reforming work experience? Or should they just be abolished?
Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, joins Aditya Chakrabortty to discuss the impact of paid and unpaid internships on our economy. Also in the studio are Heather Stewart, the Observer's economics editor, and - a week into his own work experience at the Guardian - Christian Eriksson.
Aditya Chakrabortty: Who is excluded in intern culture?
Ross Perlin: First off, those who don't attend university to begin with are almost completely excluded, or those who don't go to better known universities, with the resources, with the kind of name brand that allows people to go out and land an internship. So first off, you have all those people who are effectively consigned then to the blue collar world as internships become the gateway to the white collar workforce. And with the white collar work force being the sort of sight of high paying influential jobs in a service based economy, this is a serious problem.
But then even at another level, with in those who do attend university, there is a real division between people... who can do this for a brief period of time, but then as soon as their student loans run out, or they're out of school, they have to move on and find paying work. So, as you see the rise of postgraduate internships, as you see people doing this during gap years, or while they kind of tread water while they're waiting for a regular job to materialize, those people are much more likely to come from well-heeled backgrounds. Or to be making a significant sacrifice working on the side, bartending evenings, doubling down on student loans, going deeper into debt, which will cause problems later on. So you see a significant number of people excluded. In the US I can say, you are really talking about 70-80 % of young people who really can not do any kind of work experience.
Reviewing Ross Perlin's Intern Nation for the Sunday Times, Robert Collins picks up on Perlin's mapping of the history of internships and their proliferation today:
An intern, Ross Perlin points out in his eye-opening, welcome exposé of this rapidly expanding sector of the workforce, used to be someone in training for a particular profession. Before the second world war, the term meant only one thing: a trainee doctor confined, or interned, in a hospital for a year... since then the term has crept ever more ambiguously into almost every kind of field—"interns" are no longer just trainees, but used for whatever purpose companies see fit ...
They are, he reveals, often to be found doing what should be classed as normal, full-time jobs ... And yet, elsewhere, internships have come to be seen as the only sure way of getting a foot in the corportate door—91% of new employees at Goldman Sachs in 2009 were former interns of the company...
[Perlin's] call to arms is timely. This month, a London employment tribunal set a precedent by awarding back pay to an intern at the website MyVillage.com who, unpaid, had been responsible for running a team of writers—and hiring new interns.
In the Evening Standard Rosamund Urwin writes that "the plight of the office serf is currently a hot topic." Referring to the debate over internships, she suggests that they only benefit wealthy mediocrities. Mentioning Perlin's Intern Nation, she cites its subtitle, "How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy," as the tag-line for the life of post-recession graduates.
Today's graduate —already bogged down in debt—is expected to play the peon to enter many of the plum careers. Take the not-for-profit sector. Amnesty's pledge to protect human rights apparently excludes the right of university-leavers to a salary. For Oxfam, being Humankind doesn't stretch to being Internkind. These organisations have always been supported by volunteers but there's a difference between giving them your Saturday mornings and spending three months working with no pay, no security and probably no desk for the mere pipedream of a job ...
Roger D. Hodge, former editor of Harper's and author of The Mendacity of Hope, delves into Ross Perlin's Intern Nation for the Summer 2011 issue of Bookforum. Describing the book as "vigorous and persuasive," Hodge is quick to locate that which most concerns Perlin, namely the state of labor rights in the US and beyond, and the "deeper class logic" inseparable from an internship model which reinforces "the overwhelming bias of our political system in favor of the wealthy."
The problems Perlin identifies go deeper than the failure of the Wage and Hour Division to do its job. The more fundamental issue, as he argues in his final chapters, is the growing contingency of the global workforce. Over the past decade, a loose coalition of labor activists, chronic interns, immigrants, downsized workers, migrant laborers, artists, and others trapped in temporary work arrangements have begun to define "precarity," the precariousness and insecurity of being without permanent or stable work, as the labor issue of our time ...