Unpaid internships have been discussed before and there seems to be no consensus on the topic. While most of those who have gone through them agree that there is a degree of unfairness in doing work for free, they also acknowledge their importance in garnering references, networking professionally, and expanding one’s resume. Employers, on the other hand, argue that unpaid internships are equitable, since they provide hands-on experience and on-the-job training to emerging professionals who wouldn’t have access to such benefits otherwise. Yet several recent cases in the media have once more drawn attention to the fact that the rules of unpaid internships need to be amended – or at least better enforced, in order to avoid creating breaches of the law.
How Black Swan changed the rules of unpaid internships
There was no actual legal change in the aftermath of the recent trial, which pitted Fox Searchlight Pictures against two of its former production interns. However, the recent legal case, which was won by the former trainees, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, once more reminded employers that it is against labor laws in the United States to hire interns without guaranteeing them their right to minimum wage. The two production interns were involved in doing run-of-the-mill menial jobs for the production company, during the shooting of the film Black Swan. They ordered lunch, made coffee, ran errands, made photocopies, and even took out the trash on set. They hardly learned anything from this professional experience and were not financially compensated for their work. The judges found that the case was a clear violation of a law that is 75 years old: 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act.
What does the law say?
The law in question covers most types of labor laws which American society today takes for granted. Among others, it also covers the right to receiving minimum wage, irrespective of the contract which provides a framework for the job in question. The law was further consolidated in the wake of a 1940s Supreme Court Case, which mandated companies that hire people for no financial compensation whatsoever (called trainees at the time, and now referred to as interns) to pass a part comprised of six distinct parts. The companies had to prove that they were providing the laborers with actual formal training, similar to the education they would be receiving in a school. The internship had to benefit the intern, the intern was not allowed to take on responsibilities previously held by paid workers, and there would be “no immediate advantage” for the employee derived from the internship. More simply put, the internship was regulated as a training course, whose sole beneficiary was the intern. So, what has given rise to the way things stand nowadays?
Cue the creative industry competition levels
Over the past few decades, the number of graduates in creative fields, as well as that of humanities college degree holders, has exploded. Many of them are unemployed and heavily indebted after finishing college, which, of course, leaves them vulnerable in their search for employment. Add to this the overall rise in unemployment levels caused by the global financial recession, which has left both young and old workers without a job (or at least without a full-time, stable source of income). This mass of jobless, prospect-less employment candidates has been gravitating toward taking on unpaid internship, in the belief that it will help them land a job. Their reasoning is that, even if they work for free for a given span of time, they will be making contacts in their industry of choice, while also adding on relevant experience to their resumes. This might be true, but it is worrying, to say the least, that there is no central authority in the States to regulate internships, or even to keep a head count of the total number of employees around the country.
A 2010 initiative by federal and state labor officials aimed to do away with illegal unpaid internships altogether. However, the plan fell flat, as authorities found interns to be reluctant in filing complaints against their employers. They would have rather held on to the possibility of a job, than cause trouble for not getting paid. Yet it looks like the situation is slowly moving out of that slump, as 6 illegal internship lawsuits were filed since then. Hopefully, the unpaid internship is slowly, but surely, nearing its end.