Conde Nast's Internship Reforms Show How Bad the System Really Is

After years of bad presscomplaints and a law suit against the Hearst Corporation, Condé Nast has decided to "reform" its internship program starting this semester.

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After years of bad presscomplaints and a law suit against the Hearst Corporation, Condé Nast has decided to "reform" its internship program starting this semester. We say "reform" and not reform, because the changes don't do much to fix the broken system. In fact, the changes just prove how unfortunate the whole situation is.

Considering the fact that we're veterans of unpaid internships, and think the whole system has turned abusive, any news of reform should have us all excited—especially the news of a stipend. (The Atlantic Media Company's Fellowship Program is paid, though hardly a fortune.) But, to us, these new mandates, which a "few sources" explained to Fashionista's Dhani Mau, should have been the norm for years. Here's the new order, per Mau:

•Interns aren’t allowed to stay at the company for more than one semester per calendar year unless granted special clearance by Human Resources.
• Interns are required to do an orientation with HR where they are told to contact them if they are working unreasonably long hours or are mistreated.
• Interns can only work until 7pm and their security badges will actually be modified so that they won’t work after 7pm–meaning they won’t be able to get back into the building after 7 (making any late-afternoon errands or pickups particularly stressful)
• Interns are given stipends (around $550 for the semester)
• Interns have to receive college credit to be eligible for an internship.
• Interns will have to have official mentors
• Interns are only allowed to work on tasks related to the job at hand and no personal errands

Though we appreciate the gesture, this feels empty. First, that stipend is very small. Most of these magazines are in New York City, where $550 barely covers a semester's worth of unlimited Metro cards. But beyond money, these interns felt so abused that they wouldn't go to HR if they felt "mistreated." And, eager interns need to be kept away from their desks after 7pm? These things should be implicit, not part of some kind of revolutionary reform. But, that is the type of abuse that these unpaid workers have been subjected to.

On the intern side, buying into the abusive system is also the only way to get ahead. Interns have little bargaining power, notes Ethicist columnist Ariel Kaminer* in this week's New York Times Magazine in response to an abused unpaid intern's woes. "You have no standing to make demands, at least not the kinds that anyone will take seriously," she explains. "A thousand eager aspirants are waiting for the chance to take your position. Start issuing ultimatums, and one of those lucky suckers will get her wish." She adds, however, that this "is a practical consideration" and concludes that "whether an individual internship is fun or awful, the system as a whole is unethical." Even if Condé Nast puts in writing that tasks cannot include buying the boss coffee, we don't know an eager intern that would complain to HR without fear of losing future opportunities -- especially not in this economy.

On the company end of things, employers know they have the upper hand. But it's also true that these understaffed, financially constrained organizations need unpaid labor to survive. (This isn't just a magazine thing, by the way, we see similar stuff in retail with Anthropologie's sad window dressing internships.)

Condé Nast's "reforms" don't really address these issues. The pay still stinks. The labor still won't offer much teaching. And, we can see lots of ways for employers to get around the new rules. Sure, a halfhearted kudos should go Condé Nast for trying to do something. But, alas, it's really not enough.

*In its original version, this story said that Ariel Kaminer felt interns "should feel lucky they get to run errands," which is an inaccurate summary of her column's conclusion. We have updated this post to explain that she objects to unpaid internships on ethical grounds. 

Image via Shutterstock by Granata68

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.