Unpaid Internships: A Form of Labour Exploitation

By | October 13, 2021
Unpaid Internships

This article titled ‘Unpaid Internships: A Form of Labour Exploitation.’ is written by Akriti Raina and discusses the evil of unpaid internships in the educational and occupational sector.

I. What are internships?

Internships can be defined as short-time work experience offered by various organizations and companies to students.[1] These experiences not only help the students in learning about the professional work environment but also enrich them with knowledge relevant to the sector that they are working for. In return for their time and effort invested in the company or organization, interns are either compensated with cash or letters of recommendation and in some cases offered a full-time job experience.

II. Why are internships important?

Internships are important from the career point of view. In today’s time with high competition and less availability of jobs, internships equip one with the relevant skills so as to stand apart from others. Internships are generally not seen as equivalent to full-time office jobs and thus, interns are not placed equal to the regular employees. Interns are not seen as contributors by the organizations. They are rather seen as the beneficiaries of the process of undertaking an internship, through their exposure to mentors.

There are two types of internships- paid and unpaid.

Paid internships refer to those in which monetary remunerations are provided to the interns and unpaid internships are those where the interns are usually provided certificates in return for the work done by them.

However, this concept of unpaid internships is being challenged in recent times as it is being argued that the work that these organizations expect from the interns is no more limited to mere observation or learning but rather interns are expected to use their skill set and intellectual minds to deliver the expected results.

Not only this but the working hours are also largely undefined and interns often find themselves working as full-time temporary employees than part-time interns. But these interns aren’t paid anything in return for the services that they provide and therefore are in a way exploited for their labour.

III. What are the laws governing internships?

In countries like the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada, if the employer gains from the services or work of the intern, the intern is compensated accordingly. [2]However, such a protective policy is absent from the Indian Labour law. Therefore, interns are not safeguarded against exploitation from their employers.

In India, various acts such as the Industrial Disputes Act 1947, The Employee’s Compensation Act 1923, Minimum Wages Act 1948 etc. govern the labour market of the country. But the definition of workmen or employees given under these acts is not inclusive of the interns.

Section 2(e) of The Payment of Wages Act, 1936,[3] defines an employee as:

“employee” means any person (other than an apprentice) employed on wages, 4 [***] in any establishment, factory, mine, oilfield, plantation, port, railway company or shop to do any skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled, manual, supervisory, technical or clerical work, whether the terms of such employment are express or implied, 5 [and whether or not such person is employed in a managerial or administrative capacity, but does not include any such person who holds a post under the Central Government or a State Government and is governed by any other Act or by any rules providing for payment of gratuity]. 6 [***]

As per this definition, an apprentice (similar to an intern) is not considered to be an employee. It is interesting to note under this definition an employee is one who provides any skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled, manual, supervisory, technical or clerical work yet interns who often find themselves working in such roles are explicitly excluded from this definition.

Many interns undertake technical, manual and clerical work for the organizations they work for. For e.g.- an unpaid law intern might well be expected to draft agreements, documents, conduct research required by the mentor etc. and use their skills for the benefit of the employer or an intern from an engineering background may be expected to use technical know-how.

Given the quantity and quality of work that exceeds the criteria of “mere learning and observing”, these interns are often used as ghost employees. Such employees are hired by the organizations on a temporary basis and undertake the responsibilities of full-time employees. Through this process, companies end up making huge profits as these interns are working without the perks provided to the full-time employees.

While on one hand there is the protection of minimum wages for the workers, provisions for human and just working conditions, internships are kept away from the operation of such laws. Thus, unpaid internships are another facet of the exploitation of labour.

IV. Are internships compulsory?

Even though internships are not mandatory, many educational institutes require their students to undertake internships for the time period prescribed by the institute. Certain professional courses such as law, engineering and accountancy require students to work under mentors from specific fields and are graded academically for the internships undertaken by them. E.g.- The Bar Council of India mandates a minimum period of 12 weeks internship for three- year law degree and 20 weeks for 5 years integrated LLB degree[4]

These internships are mostly unpaid and unregulated. Internships require the intern to travel to the workplace, arrange for their meals, accommodation etc. Students who do not have the material means to sustain themselves in unpaid internships find themselves financially overburdened in a competitive environment. The students who are economically sound gain the most from these internships. Therefore, not only do unpaid internships burn a hole in the pockets of those who cannot afford to undertake them but also put them in a disadvantaged position in the rat race of success. [5]

Another evil emanating from the unregulated internship market is sexual harassment at the workplace, mostly faced by female students. With the lack of checks by institutions on the organizations providing these internships and the absence of any mechanism to bring these practises to light, women find themselves in a helpless position.

V. What is the way ahead?

Unpaid internships are purely the exploitation of labour. It robs overworked interns of the money, time and effort that has been put by them. In the garb of the learning process these interns are placed in a position of emotionally, financially and academic vulnerability.

While there are laws that protect the rights of workers, employees and labourers, there is no such law pertaining to the sector of internships. This not only results in misuse of young and needy interns as free labour but also absolves the responsibility on the part of the companies to ensure a healthy and safe working environment.

Major changes in this direction can only be possible through the development of a sound policy by the Education and Labour Ministry and giving this policy the authority that other employment-related laws have. The councils that govern different vocations should also frame policy guidelines ensuring that the interns are actually benefited from undertaking these internships.

Universities should ensure that students are not placed in such positions at all. This can be done by ensuring that students apply to only verified organizations and industrial set-ups. Further, the universities should play a proactive role in making paid internships available to all, irrespective of their economic backgrounds. If the interns are not benefiting the employer and are at the learning end of the process, it is only then unpaid internships should be allowed.

Another important step is establishing a Cell for addressing the cases of harassment by the university and blacklisting the organizations after taking appropriate actions against the guilty employers.

Therefore, what is the need of the hour is to create a culture that respects interns for their hard work, skillset and curb their exploitation in the name of “learning”.


References

[1] Diva Rai, Not just an intern! time for intern protection laws in India. Available Here.

[2] Ben Lyons, Interns are workers, too. Available Here

[3] Section 2(e) of The Payment of Wages Act, 1936, Available Here.

[4] Rules Of Legal Education – The Bar Council of India, Available Here.

[5] Satviki, It Is High Time We Change the Culture of Internships. Available Here.


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Author: Akriti Raina

Akriti is a student at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. Her areas of interest are labour law, industrial relations, ADR mechanisms and women rights.

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