Last week, a judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs suing Fox Searchlight for back wages in their former roles as unpaid interns on the set of The Black Swan. This news has naturally caused quite a stir among the masses of former and current unpaid interns as well as the organizations and conglomerates that enlisted them—can unpaid internships continue to be legal? What effects will this have on the work force? The implications of this court ruling are complex and dizzying.
I was a dedicated intern for multiple companies in college—including Hearst and Viacom, the former of which is now facing a similar lawsuit. I worked hard and I gained valuable experience, I was never asked to fetch anybody’s coffee—though I was once chewed out over email for not submitting ideas for a Jonas Brothers quiz. (Dark times.)
The experiences were invaluable for me, but the work I was doing was also valuable for my respective “employers.” I filled a need, certainly—without any interns, the workload of my supervisors would have been nearly impossible to accomplish. Perhaps that is one of the real things to consider here, many companies are utilizing interns INSTEAD of hiring entry-level workers. This means that many college-grads with reputable intern experience are finding zero entry-level positions and instead being invited to take an unpaid internship with the vague possibility of such opportunities turning into a full-time position. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t but those who graduate with the burden of college loans often can’t afford to find out. This is troubling and problematic, especially when it takes place at companies that have the resources to appropriately compensate these individuals for the work that they are doing.
In the end, I don’t see myself as victim of the ‘unpaid internship’ system and I am sometimes suspicious of others who retroactively claim they do. In the very little time since the Fox Searchlight ruling, more former interns from varying companies have decided to file suit for back wages. That is a personal decision and one that I would imagine is largely impacted by the type of internship experience each of these individuals encountered. But in the end, I don’t see these plaintiffs as the real victims of this system.
Ultimately, the victims are not individuals who retroactively feel exploited by their unpaid internship; the real victims are the individuals who could never have taken one in the first place.
The real victims are the hard-working, dedicated students of past and present who lack the economic viability to work for free for 20-hours a week. The victims are individuals who need or needed to put those 20-hours towards paying opportunities so that they can make their way financially through college and beyond.
Without internship experience, these individuals are unlikely to ever land jobs of the same caliber as those like myself who can list a top-notch company or two on their resume, straight out of college.
Unpaid internships ensure that our system is not a meritocracy; they promise to hold back those who were not born into wealth or relative wealth while catapulting forward those who were.
I have no intention of joining any of the class action lawsuits against any of the companies I interned for—I benefited greatly from their respective internship programs. Instead, I will continually advocate for paid internships so that anybody with the merits to land a prestigious internship can afford to take the opportunity.