Tuesday, April 09, 2013


Of all unpaid internships, the ones that tend to jump out in their ridiculousness are those that involve traditional youth labor, but without pay. Unpaid internships in trendy mall-store retail and, apparently, at New Brooklyn pizzerias (with $10 individual-pie-the-size-of-a-normal-slice Manhattan food-cart outposts)... and NYMag has a piece defending this. On account of, there's a French name for working for free at a restaurant - "stage," note the italics. It's a thing that predates Bushwick hotspot Roberta's foray into not paying farm workers, because Roberta's is farm-to-fork, you see. Food's just so much more ethical that way!

On the one hand, one might say, at least in such cases, this doesn't involve kids from poorer families being excluded from high-prestige, high-mobility professions. If more rich kids enter such lucrative fields as chain-store salesperson or pizza-place urban farmer, that might leave some slots at the top for kids whose parents are non-glorified retail or food-service workers. And in principle, these are fields that don't require college, and so whichever apprenticeship period might be in lieu of tuition.

On the other, it seems especially off when jobs that normally go to people looking above all for a paycheck - not some long-range career benefit, the forging of connections - switch to unpaid. And realistically, these positions are not going to be taken in the place of college, but in addition to it. Who else but those in, bound for, or graduated from college is even thinking about "internships"? And it's not as if all such labor is going this route. These positions seem mostly restricted to organizations with a certain highbrow allure - Anthropologie, not Old Navy, and Roberta's, not the local utilitarian slice joint. The extreme of this, I suppose, would be internships at restaurants in France that you have to pay to do, and the job requires constantly demonstrating how grateful you are for the opportunity. (Some kind of immersion tourism for those who want to be sneered at by French restaurant workers more than tourists normally are?) But still, Anthropologie isn't Chanel, and Roberta's isn't Per Se. It's clear enough that lines are getting blurred, and that employers are learning the lesson that one doesn't even need to pretend that one pays one's workers.


caryatis said...

So why would you say people take these unpaid internships? I'm finding it hard to wrap my head around why someone would not consider salary an important part of a job.

Now, don't tell me it's because those are the only opportunities out there, because it's not true. The unemployment rate for college grads is actually quite low. Maybe internships are the only way to break into fashion or journalism? But that certainly doesn't apply to retail or food service. I'm sure Roberta's is cooler than Red Lobster, but, when you can make a living wage at Red Lobster, why would you choose the unpaid job?

Britta said...

I would recommend organized boycotts of any sort of for profit place offering an unpaid internship. Also, maybe a law banning unpaid internships unless the places can demonstrate that they are providing the real equivalent of classroom training or a formal apprenticeship program, and providing class credit or something like such.

Phoebe said...

Well, for one thing, according to Gothamist, no one is actually interning at Roberta's. While I've seen postings for restaurant internships before - there's even a farm-to-table unpaid restaurant internship where I live! - I'm not sure how many people actually do such a thing. It's a safe bet more people work the usual way at restaurants, chain and otherwise. It seems like this is something restaurants figure they might as well try. Whether they succeed is another matter.

As for why anyone would take such an internship, assuming anyone ever does... I had heard of the French thing where you go and work unpaid in a high-end restaurant, where the idea might be that this is indeed in lieu of schooling, an old-school apprenticeship, and then you go on to make that work your career. And this can trickle down, such that any restaurant with pretentions of any kind can claim to be offering a hospitality-careers networking opportunity or something. What happens with any position is, once it's called an internship, it looks somehow meaningful on a resume, or people hope it will, or it indicates class status, or... I have no idea. Not that I'd be in a postion to know, but I'd imagine employers would look more favorably at applicants who'd spent time working in food service than at someone with food-service internship experience. Or... maybe that sounds more management-track-like, regardless of tasks completed? Who knows.

Basically, though, urban/suburban types have been going to work for free on farms for ages, I suspect, out of whichever hippie inclinations. The difference here is that it's working unpaid for a hip urban restaurant with agricultural pretensions.

Phoebe said...


Some of this already is law, I believe, but not enforced. And I was pleased to see how publicized this already is, presumably with a boycott in mind. I've never been to the Bushwick Roberta's, which is apparently one of those high-end restaurants that looks intentionally scruffy, but from what I can tell of their business model from the stands they sometimes have in Manhattan, it's an especially for-profit enterprise. The $10 pizza in a city of $2-ish slices, to-go only, and no better than many of those slices, suggested the place has some nerve.

I think I'd go further than you would with a ban on these. As it stands, it's easy enough to make the case that just about anything is educational. Entry-level workers will always need some training, and probably aren't contributing immensely to profits. And college credit means, you pay the college for the opportunity to go work at some for-profit establishment. I could see a system in which apprenticeships were somehow regulated but separate from "school," and actually replaced the need to pay beyond living expenses for one's training.

Phoebe said...

Update for Caryatis:

A commenter to the NYMag article reports having worked as an unpaid-intern line cook at Roberta's. According to said commenter, who's apparently done a lot of this sort of thing, this was a bad gig even by unpaid-kitchen-work standards.

But the comment does shed some light on why people sign up for this. Under better circumstances, "The chefs understand you're helping out for no pay, and tend to treat you pretty well. They make you good food, spend more time teaching you, and aren't as tough on you as other paid cooks."

Note the "helping out" bit. I don't think there's any illusion that this is work that costs the restaurant money.

Britta said...

I picture Marx giving a slow clap to the capitalists who figured out how to get workers to "sell their labor power" for absolutely nothing.

But yeah, being a line cook is already a crappy, underpaid job. I can't imagine doing it for free, and I can't imagine that this is good for paid workers in the cooking industry, either. Also, my guess is this is a violation of labor laws. There should be a crackdown, preferably with lots of embarrassing publicity.