Earlier this week, William Pauley, a federal judge in Manhattan, ruled that “Fox Searchlight [had] violated minimum-wage laws by not paying two production interns for their work on the film ‘Black Swan'”. Finally.
I have never understood the concept of the unpaid internship. Back when I was in college I was offered one — at a National Park, no less. When I discovered that I would be doing what other folks did for money, I turned it down flat. I was certainly qualified for a paying job — the folks who were being paid to work there did not have any more education than I did. Sure, they had more training and experience — training that had been provided to them by this employer; experience that they had garnered by WORKING there, you know, for MONEY. So, I said, “Thanks, but no thanks!” to that nonsense.
Participating in this little adventure in slave labor likely would not have led to future employment — at least not there, as there was no money in the budget to offer me a job anyway. When I asked why they were calling it an “internship” versus simply asking me if I wanted to “volunteer”, they said that they could call it an internship because I was going to gain valuable work experience. I pointed out that I would gain the same valuable work experience by volunteering in the same capacity or, better yet, by continuing to work (and be paid) at my current job. They told me that if it made me feel better, I could think of myself as a volunteer. It didn’t make me feel better.
Historically, unpaid internships have been most prevalent in the fields of art and entertainment — television, film, music, museums, publishing houses, and the fashion world, to name a few. People — usually young people — looking to “break into” these industries are often willing to sell themselves short, by working for free. They exchange their labor for the (often empty) promise of future employment.
I’ve known any number of folks who have been hoodwinked into thinking that after six months of long hours spent fetching coffee and making copies, that they’ll be offered a glamorous job in their chosen field. I’ve NEVER — not even once — heard of it happening. Why should it? These companies just fill your vacancy with the next poor slob that’s willing to work for free. They may like you. They may even write you a nice reference. But, at the end of the day, why would they EVER pay you? — a person who was willing to work for nothing?
Companies participate in this folly because they can get away with it. It’s not that they can’t afford to pay at least minimum wage to a person in an entry-level job. A couple of hundred dollars a week is a drop in the bucket — given the amount of money that the people at the top make (millions!), it’s a drop that they can well afford.
It’s an unsavory practice, at best; criminal, at worst. I, for one, am happy that FINALLY someone like Judge William Pauley came to his senses and cracked down on, in this case, the film industry. Hopefully other judges will follow suit.
To be polite, interns everywhere should send him a “Thank You” note.
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photo credit: film reel (morguefile.com)