The Death Knell of Unpaid Intern Culture

STORY BY Emily Kirkpatrick

Published: July 11, 2013

The recent spate of interns issuing lawsuits against their “employers,” in the aftermath of the Hearst class action suit being dismissed, has renewed the hope of a generation who society has decided are unfit for paid employment.

The first major landmark moment for interns and full-time, unpaid employees all over America, came on June 12th when a New York Federal Judge ruled in favor of the two interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, suing Fox Searchlight Pictures for the unpaid work they provided on the Oscar-winning film Black Swan. The judge ruled that “these internships did not foster an educational environment and that the studio received the benefits of the work.” from two men who, “were essentially regular employees.” Fox, in addition to just about every other multi-million dollar corporation in America, argued that their unpaid internship program falls under the US labor department guidelines as they are “for the benefit of the intern.” However, the Judge noted that, “The benefits they may have received are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer.”

Another of these inspiring and infuriating cases is that of Erica van Rabenswaay, a 24-year-old former employee at Norma Kamali. Erica was hired by the New York-based designer in 2012 as an “apprentice,” a three-month-long unpaid position that, if performed successfully, promised to lead to a real, salaried job. When Erica interviewed for the position, she was told that a number of other people at the company had been hired through the same process. During Erica’s “apprenticeship,” she was responsible for the website and lookbook photography, retouching, editing, as well as some graphic design and teaching other employees how to properly use their cameras. She even designed clothing labels for the designer. After three months, she was given the paperwork to be hired as a full-time graphic designer with a $45,000 annual salary. A month after she was officially hired, she was fired under the pretence that they needed someone with more experience. One week later, Erica saw the exact same apprenticeship posting she had replied to reposted verbatim. It dawned on her that this had nothing to do with her qualifications, but rather, she was just one more person in a chain of these types of shady, fraudulent business dealings.

Unpaid Intern

Lastly, it was announced this week that two former Condé Nast interns, Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib, from W Magazine and The New Yorker respectively, are jumping on the lawsuit bandwagon. They’ve requested to be paid back wages, interest and attorneys’ fees for their labor which Condé Nast valued at less than $1 an hour.  Leib was paid $300 to $500 for every summer he worked, regularly reviewing pieces for submission, proofreading, editing, coordinating cartoon submission and maintaining the online database. Ballinger, on the other hand, regularly worked twelve to fourteen hour days in W’s accessories department packing, organizing and delivering accessories to editors. In the end, W refused to provide Ballinger with a recommendation for her University, which was required in order for her to receive school credit. One W editor even told Ballinger her job was worse than The Devil Wears Prada, “because [you] don’t get any makeover in the end.” According to Ballinger and Leib’s lawyers, “This case is about the fundamental principle that if you work, you must be paid. Our clients seek to end the wage theft endemic in the media industry.”

People argue that unpaid internships offer the intern exposure to an industry they want to be involved in and are something everyone must go through in order to “pay their dues.” But that mentality creates a classist, unfair system where people who can’t afford to work for months and months without pay are unable to pursue a career in the field of their choice. Also, a legacy of intern abuse and manipulation is not grounds for its continuation. Just because you were hazed and bullied by an industry does not mean that every person deserves the same experience. Not to mention, this type of unpaid labor has not only slowly pushed out paid internship opportunities, but also basic, paid, entry-level positions. Companies have realized that the huge numbers of unemployed, eager to work, young people have created an endless market of disposable employees willing to work for no money as a way to simply get their foot in the door of an industry that has no intention of ever hiring them. There’s a fine line in internships between a learning opportunity and an abuse of power, and unpaid internships have crossed that line long ago. Hopefully this barrage of intern lawsuits will be a wake up call for some of these companies and cause them to realize that there is accountability to their exploitive practices and that their business can no longer continue to be built on the backs of unpaid twenty-somethings indefinitely.

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