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Mobilization of interns is impacting studios, other businesses

A ruling by a New York federal judge against Fox Entertainment Group could have sweeping implications for Southern California studios and other companies that rely heavily on interns. The judge ruled that unpaid interns who worked on the Oscar-winning movie “Black Swan” should have been paid at least the minimum wage, and that a class-action suit could proceed against the Fox Entertainment Group.

Over 15 other lawsuits have followed the original suit filed two years ago by the “Black Swan” interns. Most of the litigation is against individuals and companies involved in the entertainment and fashion industries that rely heavily on unpaid interns. Under federal law, if an internship at a profit-making company is unpaid, it must be educational.

Buoyed by the “Black Swan” suit as well as by the Occupy movement, interns are organizing by using strategies similar to those employed by fast-food workers, freelancers, and part-time, temporary, and guest workers to improve their wages and working conditions. Groups like the Fair Pay Campaign and Intern Labor Rights are mobilizing interns in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., where businesses and the U.S. government rely heavily on unpaid interns. The movement is spreading to other countries as well.

Intern activists say that unless the internship is a true training or volunteer position, it should be compensated. Moreover, interns should not be used to replace other employees. They also want employers to focus on training and mentoring interns, rather than just using them for free labor to perform menial jobs.

Many businesses have no incentive to pay their interns since they have more applicants than they can ever use. Young people often see internships as the only way they can gain entry into fields like movie and television production or fashion. They are also an excellent way to make powerful contacts, and bolster a resume. By requiring internships to be paid, this implicit discrimination against those who cannot afford to work for free would end, and people who have been largely shut out of these positions could seek internship opportunities.

Attorneys who specialize in employment law are working with interns and groups representing them to get compensation for these positions. With that compensation, they argue, comes respect — something that has often been lacking for hard-working, unpaid interns.

The New York Times, “Unpaid Interns: Silent No More” Ross Perlin, Jul. 20, 2013

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