The unpaid internship: It's what today's teens and twenty-somethings have come to expect as a rite of passage, a necessary foot-in-the-door to a competitive industry. In his expose, "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy," Ross Perlin places the value of intern labor at the lowball estimate of $2 billion a year. But now a handful of interns on the hit psycho-dance-drama "Black Swan" are striking back against the practice, suing the production company that they say exploited them in violation of federal law.
Fox Searchlight Pictures, which has brought you such outsider box office triumphs as "Slumdog Millionaire," "Juno," "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Full Monty," and "Sideways," has more than 100 unpaid interns at any one time working on various projects, according to the lawsuit. The two plaintiffs claim that the duties given to these interns are mostly tedious, menial and essential to Fox Searchlight's productions, reports The New York Times, and therefore broke minimum wage and overtime laws. The lawsuit seeks class action status.
The unpaid internship has always hovered uncomfortably in a legal gray zone. The Labor Department originally formulated its requirements for unpaid work with railway brakemen in mind, granting allowances for periods of uncompensated training, as long as the work "is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school." To legally not pay your on-the-job trainees, they also musn't displace regular workers, and the employer should derive "no immediate advantage."
In other words, internship programs should be a positive learning experience for the intern, with the company's only benefit being the crop of trained and experienced young people who might, at the end, make good employees. If a company hires interns as a cost-cutting substitute for paid workers, they're almost definitely violating minimum wage laws.
One plaintiff, Alex Footman, interned on "Black Swan" for five months after graduating Wesleyan with a degree in film studies. His duties allegedly included preparing coffee, keeping the coffee pot full, taking lunch orders, distributing lunches, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.
"The only thing I learned on this internship was to be more picky in choosing employment opportunities," Mr. Footman told the Times. " 'Black Swan' had more than $300 million in revenues. If they paid us, it wouldn't make a big difference to them, but it would make a huge difference to us."
A Fox Searchlight spokesman confirmed that the studio had received the lawsuit, but refused to make any comment yet.
The widespread practice of unpaid internships, particularly in creative industries, also serves as a disadvantage for lower-income young people who can't afford to labor for months, full-time, for free. In almost a parody of this practice, Donatella Versace put a semester-long unpaid internship at the fashion label's New York offices up for auction. The winning bid was somewhere in the thousands.
The Versace internship, like many others, requires that applicants receive college credit for their work. While a clear attempt to fulfill the training criteria of our country's uncompensated labor laws, it also can double-bind the student. Many colleges require that their students pay at least some tuition for this "independent study," or however they package it. So the kid is paying to not learn anything, miles away from campus.
Despite the pervasive injustice of unpaid internships, few young people have spoken out against them. Such rabble-rousing, after all, might blacklist you in your chosen industry. And in this economy, an unpaid internship is better than sitting at home and eating Fluff with a spoon.
But the lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures may be the first sign of the blacklash, even if the "Black Swan" interns end up sacrificial lambs.
"I hope this case will hold the industry to a higher standard and will get rid of this practice," said Footman.
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