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Why I sued Hollywood on behalf of unpaid interns everywhere

When Fox Searchlight Pictures‘s $300 million-plus grossing “Black Swan” sought to control its production budget, in part by staffing with unpaid intern labor, it was contributing to the normalization of a practice that has no defensible basis in ethics or law. It took advantage of people’s desperate need to distinguish their résumés and the acceptance of this commonplace if peculiar fact of the youth labor market. Somewhere along the way, a laudable idea that work experience could have academic merit metastasized into an ad hoc free-for-all in which there is little consistency in policy (whether among employers or colleges), little governmental enforcement, and every reason for exploited young workers to cross their fingers and hope that they’re expected to labor for free for only a brief period.

People who defend unpaid internships are defending a notion of what they think unpaid internships should be, rather than what they are. A picture of how they have corrupted the labor market for film and television production, the field I was in, should clarify how damaging this practice has become. It is also holding back the emergence of a more vibrant and sustainable labor market that contributes to the much delayed economic recovery.

The normalization of unpaid internships effectively prevented me from earning a living—despite the steady need for the very kind of skilled labor I was regularly asked to provide. There is a terrible irony that in the midst of an historic employment crisis, you can now find steady work, so long as you don’t expect to be paid. Interns might be students (sold a bill of goods about experiential learning), recent graduates (having internalized the notion that their labor is worthless until they have more experience), or people like me: experienced workers transitioning into a new field (grudgingly accepting a strange “new normal”).

When I left a job on Wall Street—running a training program for recent college graduates whom we paid throughout their training—I first enrolled in a course to be trained and certified in film editing. But as wonderful as the training at The Edit Center in New York City was, the school suggested that the skills we had developed were not necessarily marketable, even though they were sought after by multiple employers.

Instead, we were advised to work for free for several assistant editing jobs and were regularly provided insider “opportunities” to do so while waiting an unspecified period of time for the first random employer to decide our skills were worth compensation. It’s disappointing that schools like The Edit Center apparently care more about maintaining relationships with employers, whose budgets would suffer if a higher standard were insisted upon, than encouraging financially viable solutions for their students.

And this is endemic of the unpaid internship practice, particularly in culture-production industries heavily reliant on freelancers. For workers forever looking for the next gig, this amounts to a ticking bomb. Either your savings (or your parental support) run out or you begin to get paid before it’s too late, meanwhile working unpaid for months at a stretch, providing labor that helps employers make successful organizations run.

My decision to sue Fox Searchlight Pictures was not only to insist on receiving the pay I was owed, but to deter it and other employers from continuing to engage in this toxic practice. It was to signal to other such intern-workers that society already has protections in place meant to prevent this kind of exploitation, to let them know that they are not alone if they find this practice an outrage.

This should be equally objectionable to virtue-of-hard-work conservatives and labor-solidarity progressives. The time has come for the era of unpaid internship wage theft to take its bow and exit the stage, and for a meaningful policy discussion about what a healthy, labor-market strengthening transition from school to work should look like.

You can follow Eric on Twitter at @EricGlatt. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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