Temps and Interns Can't File Sexual Harassment Claims, and That Needs to Change


The American Staffing Association, which tracks weekly changes in temporary and contract employment, reports that staffing employment is up 18.6% since the beginning of the year. More significantly, this "industry has created more jobs than any other single industry in America." That’s a good thing right?

The Economic Policy Institute reports that by the year 2020, 30% of the American workforce is expected to hold a low-waged job. A low-wage job is defined as a job who, even at full-time employment, would fall below the poverty line for a family of four. The Associated Press paints an incredibly dim picture for millennials, but especially for those without a college degree. These issues have all been highlighted before, their problems expounded by many. What is less talked about is the implications this has on attitudes toward the treatment of low-wage workers, especially those who are in guest worker programs or interns. 

Guest workers and interns are not protected by the same workplace policies or laws. For instance, at most companies interns are not able to file claims of sexual harassment because of their unpaid status. An intern's unpaid status means she is not an employee, and is therefore not protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Disability Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act. 

Interns who are sexually harassed at their place of work feel as if they have little recourse. Writing in Dissent magazine, Madeleine Schwartz puts it best when she says interns are meant to be invisible. Reaching out to others may not result in any change in behavior by the offending party. This story tells of an intern repeatedly sexually harassed by her superior, and her feeling that she had no where to go for help. Those who do tell face termination by their company.

Unpaid internships can only be accepted by a small percentage of individuals, generally by those of us who are fortunate enough to have the monetary support of our families and friends. There are still those who put themselves into financially precarious situations in order to obtain an internship in the hopes that it will propel them into a paying job. This puts the rest of those looking for work at a severe disadvantage, and perpetuates the cycle of low-paying jobs. 

But internships are not the only cause for concern in a country with an economy fighting to add jobs. The rights and status of guest workers in America is grossly under-reported and rarely discussed. Guest workers come to America on the H-2 visa program and are bound by a strict set of rules. Guest workers are unable to work more than one job at a time. If they leave their employer for any reason they risk being deported. Guest workers are also not protected against employee retaliation should they report abuse. A rule that would have granted guest workers some protections, including that of whistle-blower status, were rejected by business interests in the U.S. The government was sued and the rule was put on hold. 

There are several cases that highlight the prevalence of abuse of America’s guest workforce. Workers come into this country often on the promise of good paying jobs in exchange for large financial sums upfront, or borrowed with interest. When the workers arrive here the owe large sums of money to these recruiters and the high paying jobs are nowhere to be found. This is the very definition of indentured servitude

With the promise of work and a visa, women come to the United States from all over the world. A case involving the sex trafficking of women in a Chicago-area massage parlor that fronted as a prostitution ring, highlights some of the issues with companies such as ‘Au Pair in America’ which provide visas but do little else once these women actually arrive. Human Rights Watch released a report in May of 2012 which shed light on the rampant sexual abuse and harassment immigrant farm workers face in the United States. 

Low-paying jobs or no-paying jobs, as is the case with internships, offer little to no protection against workplace abuse. The successful passage of the Violence Against Women Act, with the additional language from Senate bill S.1925, would offer further protection to women and children that possess U-Visas (agricultural visas). Greater enforcement of existing laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act would help curb workplace abuse. Though it is not widely known, many internships would fall under the purview of those that are required to be paid by FLSA. Thus granting interns the rights and protections of employee status. Reform of the H-2 Visa program is also necessary. As the program currently exists, it offers little in way of recourse for guest workers, and makes it far too easy for employers to abuse and exploit their workforce. 

Sexual harassment of one intern creates a toxic atmosphere for all employees. The exploitation of guest workers by corporations, large and small, makes it easier for all workers to be exploited. Protecting these workforces from continued abuse, neglect, and exploitation will help to make the U.S. a better place to work for all individuals.