Growing up as the first child of immigrant parents, it often felt as if I was discovering the wonders and oddities of modern-day America right alongside them. Their experiences along with those of my grandparents who were exploited for their labor, being forced to work long hours with little pay in the produce fields that fed America, added a lot of perspective when we spoke of things that I saw as normal in contemporary American society.

Come college time, our conversations naturally turned to my future job prospects. I explained to them that internships were often a necessary resource for “getting your foot in the door” in the civic-minded sort of career that I was interested in — a claim that could be made by half of graduating college students in 2012, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (up from 17 percent in 1992). Further explanation of this concept to my parents led to me mentioning that most of these internships were unpaid. My parents were shocked and more than a little confused at the idea of working for no pay. I had to assure them that this was just the way things were done now. However, their protests left a mark that motivated me to give a critical look at such a worrying labor trend.

It is only clear to me now that a heavy majority of unpaid internships, which account for almost half of all internships in this country, are simply illegal. The letter of the law that specifies this — the same law that ended child labor and established a minimum wage decades ago — plainly outlines six different rules that determine the legality of an unpaid internship position. The general gist of the criteria is that an unpaid internship must be solely beneficial to the intern in an educational capacity, while not displacing any regular employees or providing any immediate advantage to the employer.

Essentially, this means that all the Xeroxing you did, and all those social media projects you maintained for that lowly “foot-in-the-door” unpaid internship you got this summer, was all against the law … and for good reason. When the work you do is the work no one wants to do, you should be getting paid. Especially if it contributes to keeping the operations of the work place afloat. The idea of an internship is being abused and stretched beyond its origins in the medical field to squeeze as much free labor as it can out of an entire generation of people in a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high.

For-profit industries across the nation are violating these rules with little consequence. Some know they are breaking the law, while others are ignorant of the fact. Interns are certainly in a dark area of what’s right. The situation is bleak, though. A perfect storm of companies trying to keep labor costs down since 2008’s economic crisis combined with an influx of college students looking to get any helpful experience on their resume is fanning the flames of the intern craze.

The results of this can be seen in the most unexpected places. Go to Disneyland and look at the name tags; you’ll find that 8,000 out of 50,000 Disneyland workers there claim to be interns of college age. The work they’re doing, though, is the same work that the other “regular” half does. There’s no mentoring, supervision or any resemblance of an educational component that internships require under the law.

This is clear exploitation. A company that can easily pay a decent wage gets off the hook when it claims that 8,000 of the workers that run their amusement parks are there to get their “foot in the door” or for “experience” or any coded language that hides the ugly truth: that free labor is normalized in our 21st century American economy.

Perhaps the worst part is that other trusted institutions of our society are absolutely involved in this scam. 2010 figures at Stanford University reveal that 643 unpaid internships were posted on their job board that year — quite a high jump from the 174 that were posted two years before. If we were to take conservative estimates and say that only a quarter of these postings were illegal, isn’t that still high enough of a number to be concerned about? One wonders if GauchoLink, our school’s own job-posting board, would reveal similar figures. I’m willing to bet it does.

The fine folks in Congress, the very people we’d expect to do something about this mess, couldn’t care less because they themselves benefit from such free labor. The offices and halls of Capitol Hill are run off the backs of unpaid interns, often claiming college credit as their sole compensation. But what is educational about menial office work? I’m certainly in favor of out of classroom experiences that are beneficial to the intern, but let’s be real — these are not internships; this is real work. The schools that provide college credit for these experiences are only providing a disservice to the people drowning themselves in debt for an education at these institutions.

The overall trend is even more worrying when we take into account the societal standing of people who are able to take unpaid internships. Perhaps the biggest reason for my parents’ negative reaction is the fact that neither I, nor they, would be able to support my life with an unpaid position for very long, if at all. People with money, however, obviously can. The inequities of wealth and the difficulties of moving up the income bracket ladder are worsened by the abuse of employers in the name of internships. We are truly living in a pay to play society.

When the standard of living for recent college graduates, student loans and all, is the same as that of the lowest skilled workers of the 1960s, it is clear that the system is failing us. We need to bring about wide changes to our contemporary society. The legality of these internships is often uncontested because, unfortunately, one would never think to sue the very person that a prized letter of recommendation hinges on.

I, for one, would like to see watchdog commissions started at schools across the country to combat such ills, especially in regard to postings on job boards. The politicians of our nation must also be held accountable for and forced to reform our wrecked labor situation on a more permanent basis. Maybe one day this period will be just a taint on the history of an otherwise progressive-minded society, but for now we should forget about our feet and just chop the whole damn door down.

Mario Vasquez is so not about to Xerox your papers just for some letter of recommendation.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, January 8, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.