Counterparties: Unpaid internship

By Ben Walsh
June 17, 2013

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Good news for America’s unpaid army of latte-fetchers and lunch-order-takers! A Federal district judge in Manhattan has ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated state and federal labor laws by using unpaid production interns on “500 Days of Summer” and “Black Swan”.

The ruling in the “Black Swan” case could have a big impact for the estimated 1 million American college students who work in unpaid internships. Ross Perlin, author of the 2011’s “Intern Nation”, says the decision could end decades of what’s effectively “wage theft”:

At their peak following the 2008 crash, unpaid internships were increasingly crowding out paid ones and replacing regular positions altogether, in the process turning the entry-level job into an endangered species. It was “a capitalist’s dream,” as sociologist Andrew Ross put it: free white collar labor made to seem almost entirely normal.

Dylan Matthews — a former intern himself — writes that the ruling has the effect of turning a 2010 Department of Labor fact sheet into established law: the judge in the Black Swan case said Searchlight’s internships violated all six of that document’s criteria on what an internship should be. Rebecca Greenfield — whose LinkedIn profile suggest that, yes, she’s been an intern — talked with both of the plaintiffs. Both were well-off enough to afford to perform free labor: one got money from his mother to live in New York and work for free; the other lived off his savings from a previous job at AIG.

That unpaid internships favor the wealthy isn’t a new argument, but recent legal scrutiny hasn’t gotten rid of the practice. ProPublica is running an investigation into the intern economy — there’s even a Kickstarter campaign to help them hire an intern to cover interns. The organization’s research intern has held six internships, both paid and unpaid, and writes that she’s struggled financially since finishing grad school in 2011. She does, however, say that she’s both learning and getting paid at ProPublica.

Matt Yglesias, who earned valuable intern-ish experience getting coffee at Rolling Stone, worries that enforcing minimum wage labor laws for internships will just push people into expensive grad schools. “Erecting extremely sharp walls between ‘education,’ ‘training,’ and ‘work’” doesn’t make a ton of sense,” he writes. (Though it’s much easier to put scare quotes on “work” when you have it.) In the end,Yglesias nods approvingly at arrangements like Germany’s vocational training programs, where students do, in fact, get paid.

This won’t be the last intern lawsuit. Former Hearst interns filed their own suit last month. Yesterday, two former magazine interns at noted intern factory Conde Nast got in on the act. One former intern at W, Condé’s high-end fashion book, described her 10-hour days as being like “The Devil Wears Prada”, but worse. That could describe every internship ever. — Ryan McCarthy, who is not an intern, either paid or unpaid, but is a former intern, and, after a few beers, will probably tell you he’s probably still bitter about the whole thing.

On to today’s links:

Ugh
Detroit will default on its unsecured debt – Reuters
Some positive news about Detroit – BI

Alpha
Let’s all invest in San Francisco parking spots! – AP

Leaders
American CEOs remain “oblivious to political reality” – Bloomberg

Right On
The best response to the failed policies of austerity: full employment – Guardian

Fails
The 50 worst charities in America – Tampa Bay Times

Servicey
How to avoid tax avoidance – Reuters

Data Points
In 1956, Argentina’s annual per-capita beef consumption was 222 pounds – NYT

Oxpeckers
The BBC spent $152 million on a failed CMS – Economist

Hilarious
TheStreet.com says Yahoo might buy a company that doesn’t exist anymore – Valleywag

And, of course, there are many more links at Counterparties.

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