I'm a student, and in my spare time and university holidays I do paid work, and I do unpaid work. In my paid work, I work as a freelance copywriter, completing projects for national clients which involve thorough research and writing copy on commission. I obtained this work because I was approached by a written communications firm. They believed I was an asset to their team, so they pay me to keep me writing for them.
My unpaid work is entirely different, and I do so much of it because it is of benefit to me. Anyone who has trawled through a weekend of writing internship covering letters will tell you that the reason they are doing it is because it's the only way to get into the industry, and to learn about that industry- ie. they're doing it for themselves. Companies won't approach you if they don't need you- in fact, the opposite is true- you approach them because you need them.
How anyone could expect a company to pay for an intern they don't need is beyond me. You may find yourself doing an array of both menial and meaningful tasks. Meaningful to you, that is. Rest assured, there will be an existing, paid employee inside the company who could do the task more effectively and efficiently. But if you want to have a bash for free, then go for it. It's how you learn. But don't expect to be paid. They'll pay you when you contribute what others can't.
The reason that unpaid internships are so oft-criticised is because they favour those who can easily afford to work for free. They favour the middle class young people whose parents can pay their rent and whose relatives are in high places. This is true. It is also a battle not worth fighting, as parents will always do their best to boost their child's chances, legal obstruction or no legal obstruction. What we can do is see this apparent barrier as a benefit to the privileged and not a blockade to the masses. If you really want it, then you'll find the money. At the moment, I'm living in the room of a friend who has a student flat in the area, although if I didn't have her generosity, I would have the income from my paid work to supplement my living costs. Is it easy when things aren't handed to you on a plate? No. Will you ever usurp the reigning classes from the pungent draw of nepotism? No. Is it impossible to better your prospects when your parents aren't bailing you out? No.
All of the interns I have come across this summer are in a position they fought for, and most work weekends and evenings to get by. It's that age old mantra: where's there's a will, there's a way.
The intrinsic blessing of the unpaid internship is that it puts you in an ideal position to add value, to show your worth, to make yourself essential. If the work that you do is of value you will become indispensable, and that's when you'll deserve to be paid, which is why I live by the saying "Know your place, but realise your worth". Internships wouldn't exist if they weren't of benefit to the person doing them. If you're looking for someone to blame, then blame the person trying to better their chances of finding work. Chances are they'll tell you where to go.