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Why the debate over unpaid internships won’t go away

unpaid internships
unpaid internships
There are currently more than fifteen class-action lawsuits outstanding in the United States relating to unpaid internships. Is it time to reexamine the shaky tradition of unpaid labour in exchange for experience?

The film “Black Swan”, which starred Natalie Portman, told the story of young people dedicated to their craft to the point of madness, the demands of their trade pushing them deeper and deeper into starvation, addiction and a desperate need for approval from unforgiving and ruthless overseers. Turns out, two interns on the film were living their own correlative storyline.

Since the launch of the “Black Swan” lawsuit, as it has come to be known, two years ago, more than 15 similar class-actions have been launched in the United States. Most of these cases are pending, such as the suit launched by interns against the entertainment website Gawker. Charlie Rose settled out of court with one of his interns. ProPublica has successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary on the subject of the internship economy. The trend has clearly hit the mainstream: Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson currently star in a film about fortysomethings interning at Google.

On June 11, the federal judge tasked with the “Black Swan” case found against Fox Entertainment Group in deciding that the interns employed by the film should have been paid at least minimum wage. Fox has already filed an appeal, since the ramifications for the famously exploitative film and television industry are likely to be serious.

 

…the judge ruled that if an internship was to be unpaid, it ought to have an educational component, making it a worthwhile, value-added experience that enhances the intern’s skill set in a material way. Apparently, getting coffee for Darren Aronofsky does not qualify.

 

The judge ruled that if an internship was to be unpaid, it ought to have an educational component, making it a worthwhile, value-added experience that enhances the intern’s skill set in a material way. Apparently, getting coffee for Darren Aronofsky does not qualify. A reasonable person might suppose that any arrangement arrived at mutually by consenting adults is nobody’s business but their own. And a judge might disagree.

How did unpaid work come to be a norm in the labour market? And in light of the recent pushback, is there a future for unpaid internships?

During the 1990s and 2000s, graduates were being released from school tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and the job market enjoyed by their parents was effectively gone. Internships were just beginning to make their presence felt, and by the end of 2010 had become an almost completely uncontroversial rite of passage for young professionals. Effectively, the internship replaced what used to be known as the “entry-level job”.

The idea that a person could merely get a job and expect a quality of life that involved both home and vehicle ownership in addition to support for a family and a comfortable retirement is now dead. Check out the back and forth about this subject on Reddit, a site populated by educated twenty-somethings. It’s a source of constant debate.

The new attitude towards labour has also seen a pushback from small and medium entrepreneurs and freelancers. In April 2011, designer Mike Monteiro borrowed a glorious phrase from Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas and galvanized a generation of “creatives” who had been repeatedly stiffed for their work. His speech on the subject has become required viewing at small- to medium-size agencies and is symptomatic of a new attitude towards work and money by the new entrepreneurial class.

The rise of pay-to-play employment in cities as expensive to live in as New York and Vancouver speaks more to the power of prestige and the need to cultivate your personality as if it were a brand than to the twin illusions of meritocracy and rising through the supply-and-demand labour market offered by either established institutional employers or scrappy little tech companies.

Start-up culture, with its many incubators and tiny bootstrapped companies striving to replace Facebook and Google, is one response to the new job climate. How those companies handle the new reality is telling.

 

It might be pointed out that the culture of Washington runs on interns, and that Barack Obama arguably owes his victory to these young, unpaid enthusiasts.

 

In April, Vancouver’s HootSuite came under fire for its intern policy. The backlash seemed out of keeping with HootSuite’s reputation for being the kind of place where an employee who didn’t own a dog should probably consider getting one, since bringing your canine friend to work seemed practically a requirement.

CEO Ryan Holmes reacted. “It was brought to my attention on Friday, April 5th that HootSuite had unpaid internship postings on its website that may have been in contravention of the Employment Standards Act of BC,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “To completely remove outstanding doubt around this matter, we will immediately rectify the issue by offering full payment, including interest incurred, to unpaid interns who had roles within our company within the last six months that were not in accordance with the ESA BC.”

HootSuite continues to offer an internship program, after its initial stumble in misinterpreting BC’s Labour Act. Its program now adheres to the letter of the law.

The debate has gone straight to the top of the food chain: U.S. President Obama spoke this week about the growing gaps in the labour market. “The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 per cent since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who have been out of work for some time.” It might be pointed out that the culture of Washington runs on interns, and that Obama arguably owes his victory to these young, unpaid enthusiasts. A high-profile political internship, on the other hand, looks a little more impressive on a résumé than merely doing gruntwork in an office.

“Lincoln was all about building stuff,” added Obama. But in a week when the once-thriving city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, we’re reminded that it’s not just high-paying white collar jobs that are disappearing.

Lawsuits continue to progress through the court system, and it seems clear that internships are reverting to their original definition as a training ground for an actual paying job. In the meantime, for young people, the paradox remains: no job without experience, no experience without a job.

The debate over internships is not going away because an individual lined up to take a stand on the matter is trampled by ten others willing to fill the compromised role. The real cuplrit? An unemployment rate amongst recent college graduates that is nearing 40%. The United States has raised a generation in which its most capable minds are idle. They should be building stuff.

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