Unpaid internships are common job requirements. But they are a privilege open only to a wealthy few

Requiring people to work without pay to build up their CV means that only those who can afford it can move up the social ladder

Tathira Baatul
Published : 20 May 2023, 02:00 PM
Updated : 20 May 2023, 02:00 PM

As a student or young professional, internships promise valuable experience, the ability to build your network, and a potential job offer. The job market continues to grow more competitive, and such opportunities could be the leg up that a new job seeker needs. But the truth is, not all internships are created equal - and some may be an unaffordable luxury for many people, especially if they're unpaid.

Think about it – if you come from a stable socioeconomic background, an unpaid internship could mean months and months without any financial compensation. Think about your classmate who comes from outside Dhaka and has to pay their own tuition and rent. They might already be working multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time or energy to commit to an internship. Even if they get one, they might struggle to keep up with others who don't have to bear this burden.

This is where the issue of privilege comes into play. Many industries and employers now require internships as a pre-requisite before making a full-time offer, essentially blocking people who can't afford them from those fields. Those with no issue working for free can build their CV and make connections, while others continue to tread water. This can create a cycle of exclusion that gives unfair advantages to people from affluent families.

But this article isn't meant to take aim at those who work as unpaid interns. Accepting the privilege people have should not diminish your personal accomplishments. Still, we should recognise that aspects of people's identity and background may provide some with opportunities others do not have.

A company might not believe it is perpetrating a problem when it offers an unpaid internship, but it is important to understand that privilege is a systematic issue, one that is deeply rooted in our larger social structures and institutions. An employer might not be intentionally classist, but they can still contribute to a culture that prevents social mobility, further concentrating power and money in the hands of those who already have it.

Unpaid internships can be dehumanising and exploitative. As Bo Burnham elegantly puts it: "barely people, somehow legal, unpaid intern".

Companies and other employers can help by offering need-blind internships that provide financial support to those who need it. Or, they can offer paid internships outright.

But, leaving it up to the conscience of individuals may not be the best strategy. Policymakers should note the issue and step in to ensure people are not exploited in the name of career advancement. Tackling income inequality, access to education, and job opportunities are essential for a host of social reasons, but they can also take a direct approach by ensuring legal protection for interns.

Interns can also advocate for themselves by negotiating compensation, seeking mentorship and guidance from supervisors, and setting velar goals for what they hope to gain from internships.

The first step, however, is to recognise the privilege at play in the system. By confronting it head-on, we can work towards a future where everyone can pursue their career, regardless of their background. It isn't only about raising awareness; it's a matter of creating a more just and inclusive society.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.