The End of Unpaid Internships?

July 19th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Recent rulings in favor of payouts for interns are shining a spotlight on unpaid jobs.

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Recently, a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight broke the law by not paying two interns who worked on the movie “Black Swan.” TIME Magazine’s Ross Perlin tells the story of another of the approximately 20 unpaid interns on the movie, Eric Glatt, who emailed him after the judgment. The 41-year-old New Yorker interned on the movie during a career transition, drawing up purchase orders, making spreadsheets and running errands for free and without the one form of compensation that unpaid interns expect – training. The movie went on to make over $300 million, Perlin notes, and interns are challenging what he calls “the ugly new culture of internships, a third to half of which are unpaid.”

Two days after the “Black Swan” ruling, two former interns at the New Yorker and W Magazine sued parent company Conde Nast publications, and Reuters reported how employment experts are predicting a “wave of lawsuits” from unpaid interns in the future. According to the TIME piece, at least six similar lawsuits have already been filed in the fields of fashion, sports, television and modeling – and that was before three former interns filed a fair-labor suit against online gossip giant Gawker and founder Nick Denton. In the suit, according to the New York Post, the interns claim that Gawker was “illegally boosting the bottom line by classifying workers as interns to avoid shelling out wages.”

According to the Reuters article, employment lawyers say the practice has become standard in “glamour” industries such as movies and publishing to reduce labor costs in a flagging economy.

Exploitation? Perhaps. But Perlin says the damage isn’t limited to denying an income to interns; it has also been “turning the entry-level job into an endangered species,” excluding “the poor and working class from a whole range of fields and opportunities” since the interns who work for free likely have some financial help from home.

But would banning unpaid internships reverse the trend, increasing career opportunities for low-income kids? According to Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, not likely. “My worry would be that we’ll replace zero-salary work/training positions with what amounts to negative-salary training in the form of graduate school.” He reasons that some careers depend on “further seasoning” after college before graduates are considered qualified to work in their chosen professions. Requiring someone to spend thousands of dollars on graduate school creates a larger barrier, he says. In fact, Yglesias argues for more – not fewer – unpaid internships, in the form of apprenticeships.

What’s your opinion of the unpaid internship? Can it still have value, or has it simply become a free-labor scam? Would instituting training standards help fix the problem? Weigh in.