Do Unpaid Internships Exploit Young People?

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Two former unpaid interns sued a Fox movie studio that they said made them do menial tasks instead of teaching them. A judge said they should have been paid.

Unpaid internships became more common during and after the recession. Employers struggled to control costs and students struggled to find a job — any job.

When they couldn’t, many settled for “work experience.” Win-win?

Usually not. The problem, as a federal judge just ruled, is the definition of work experience.

In a case brought against Fox Searchlight Studios by two former unpaid interns who worked on “Black Swan,” U.S. District Court Judge William H. Pauley III said internships that provide “incidental” benefits such as resume lines, references and academic credit don’t cut it, according to The New York Times. Those interns should have been paid, he said.

For employers to qualify for free labor, they need to provide “internships intentionally structured to benefit” the interns, the judge said. The work must be like vocational training, and the experience should be primarily to the intern’s benefit, not the company’s. It shouldn’t just shift work from an employee to an intern.

The Times noted last year that unpaid internships have spread from the film and nonprofit industries — where they were already common — to publishers, art galleries, law firms and elsewhere. A Pew Research survey of young adults in 2011 found that nearly a quarter had  taken an unpaid internship for work experience, and more than a third had gone back to school.

Students taking an unpaid internship are actually paying to have a job, because they pay regular tuition rates for the credit and have to get themselves to and from work between classes.

Unpaid internships have other minuses. Paid interns are nearly twice as likely as unpaid interns to get a job offer at graduation, Marketplace says.

“It shouldn’t be up to the least powerful person in the arrangement to have to bring a lawsuit to stop this,” Eric Glatt, one of the interns in the Fox case, told the Times. Do you agree? Tell us what you think about unpaid internships on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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