​As a society, we’ve generally accepted the institution of unpaid student labor. Many students, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, struggle with choosing between paid jobs that benefit them more immediately and unpaid jobs that benefit them more in the future. As it is, we accept that universities don’t pay most students who assist with their research, and that companies don’t pay most of their student-interns. But why? There’s no good reason for students to accept that they won’t be paid for their labor. The struggle between choosing unpaid versus paid work is unnecessary if students opt instead to struggle against the employers who believe it’s acceptable not to pay students for their labor.

Many employers claim that the special advantages of unpaid student jobs for the students justify the absence of wages. Internships and university-based research assistance appear to be the most popular kinds of unpaid student jobs. Most students want to intern with certain companies or assist with university research because these jobs are in the students’ professional fields of interest and will therefore help them achieve their career goals. By interning and/or researching, students can gain specialized academic knowledge as well as develop professional skills, such as researching techniques, writing, networking, etc. If nothing else, by the end of an internship or research assistantship, student workers can add references and bullet points for their résumés.

These are, more or less, the advantages of unpaid student labor for the student workers. Although one can’t deny that these advantages do exist, they don’t constitute fair compensation nor a justification for not paying them. All workers deserved to be paid fairly for their labor. Students, like all other workers, should be able to receive the long-term benefits of their work experience in addition to fair wages. There’s nothing special about the jobs held by student workers that justifies the outright absence of wages and exploitation of their labor.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the institution of unpaid student labor is that it limits socioeconomic mobility. The special advantages of unpaid student labor are advantages largely impossible to obtain from the paid jobs currently available. The wealthier students, who can afford to work for free, reap all the aforementioned advantages of the unpaid jobs. Conversely, of course, poorer students, who can’t afford to work for free, reap none of these advantages. Thus, the institution of unpaid student labor bars poorer students from these opportunities and, through this inequality, impedes upon their achievement of the so-called American Dream.

The possible exceptions are college work-study programs. Students who qualify and complete all the necessary paperwork can participate in these programs and receive wages from their university for assisting with research — but only wages that help pay for students’ “educational expenses.” The universities who employ work-study students as research assistants may appear altruistic in helping to pay students’ tuition, but really the relationship is quid pro bono. Universities should pay all students who assist with their research. Less privileged students should receive financial aid, but paying work-study students for assisting with research is not actually financial aid; it’s fairly paying the least privileged students the way that all student-workers should be paid.

We ought to eliminate the institution of unpaid student labor. The feeble compensation that the employers claim they provide is inadequate, and we need not accept it. If students demand to be paid for their labor, everyone but the profit-makers will benefit — students will earn more money to help fund, among other things, their ridiculously high tuition costs, and one barrier of socioeconomic mobility will diminish. One important obstacle for this potential movement is that currently students aren’t properly organized. Any successful boycott or strike would require a vast majority of students to ban together against those exploiting them for their labor and together demand fair wages. The key component is for the working students to realize their power: the institution only continues to exploit us because we consent to it. We can be paid for our work if we are willing to organize and demand it. Students of the world, unite!

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.

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