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Unpaid internships: Institutionalized discrimination against minorities

As the economy worsened over the last year, millions of Americans lost jobs and thousands of companies simply lost in the survival of the fittest. Companies who did survive transitioned many, once decently paying jobs, to unpaid internships. Internships, once a form of apprenticeship, has become slave labor. 

And the truth is often times, these "unpaid internships" are in fact illegal. It is only permitted if the work they're doing is directly tied to college credit—  meaning the person must be enrolled in an internship class at their college or university. But even still, most of these "unpaid internships" are in direct violation of Federal Minimum Wage laws. 

Even more scandalous than the rise of these overlooked worker violations during the recession is the fact that it also means fewer jobs will go to minorities. The unpaid internship is not just illegal but also a form institutionalized discrimination against the poor, working-class and quite often minority workers, who simply cannot afford to work for free. And in this time, the only people who can afford to intern are those who have rich parents to support them.

In 2009, worker productivity in this country grew by 9.5 percent in non-farm businesses, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That’s the biggest gain in more than six years but labor cost decreased by 5.2 percent, the biggest drop in 41 years of federal reporting.

How? Workers did more in fewer hours and companies transitioned, once paying jobs, to unpaid ones.

Fortunately, the White House appears to be addressing this issue. 

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” a Labor Department official toldThe New York Times this week.

Unfortunately, the White House appears to be taking a merely one-dimension look at this issue, which has many long-term repercussions. Internships were intended to be a way for recent graduates to get the often required "experience" that would lead to a better job. But instead, during the recession it has become just another privilege for the overprivileged, and the industry access fee that many minority graduates cannot pay.

As if this country doesn't already have enough access fees that keep the poor and working class relegated to the lower rungs of the economic ladder? Minority students are more than twice as likely to graduate from college with mounting debt. Those student loan payments, unless you aggressively pursue an extension, come due six months after graduation. These students are less likely to have the familial, fraternal, or social connections that more privileged graduates have. These students are less likely to have parents who have friends in high places who can help them get their feet in the door. 

With this new White House administration, I hope we can eventually take a longer look at the classism, in which this country is steeped. From access to private high schools or the ridiculous expensive tuition rates at the more elite universities, there are a plethora of obstacles and lack of access issues when it comes to accessing the economic engines of this country.

In addition to identifying unpaid internships for what they actually are— slave labor, this administration should also consider  affirmative action for employers seeking interns. Not race-based affirmative action— President Obama might get assassinated for even suggesting it— but affirmative actions based on economic advantage. Why shouldn’t companies, when recruiting interns, be required to offer them to the best and the brightest, but also to those who really need it?

Devona Walker is's senior financial/political reporter and blogger. She can be reached at [email protected].