The number of unpaid interns utilized as entry-level staff—minus the pay—has been on the rise in recent years, and media coverage of these unethical and unlawful arrangements has been growing exponentially. With several class action lawsuits filed on behalf of those working without wages in a system initially designed to benefit them, the plight of these interns stuck between a rock and a hard place—with a desperate need for a toehold in the professional world on the one hand and the economic downturn on the other—is gaining national attention.
Internships have long been a right of passage for both the college student and recent graduate. Traditionally, these populations have actively sought out mentor-driven opportunities related to their target profession, or company, with the understanding that they will receive a valuable learning experience, priming them for a climb up the hiring ladder. In today’s world, employers are tightening their budgets and downsizing full-time staff, and, as such, internships have replaced what were once entry-level jobs, but with caveats—a lack of compensation, and ethics
This new style of unpaid internship is often of little practical benefit to the intern, amounting to what some have termed “slave labor,” but of great assistance to the employer.
Documenting the concomitant rise in unpaid internships and the economic exploitation of those hungry for work is former intern Ross Perlin. In his book, “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Earn Little in the Brave New Economy,” Perlin estimates that approximately one-third of all interns go unpaid as they do increasingly substantive work, flouting not only convention, but in many instances the law.
Greedy Businesses Exploiting Unpaid Interns
From Wall Street and Madison Avenue to the world of Hollywood film and design, an explosion in unpaid internships means that hundreds of thousands of college students, new grads, and displaced workers searching for any inroad to a full-time position are subject to exploitation.
While it is legal for a company or individual to offer an unpaid internship, there are specific guidelines to which the company or individual offering the internship must adhere.
The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
In response to public outrage and intern complaints, the U. S. Department of Labor has ramped up efforts to thwart abusive practices in unpaid internships, investigating employers and playing an important role in the investigation of reported cases. However, even with a tougher stance by the Department of Labor is required in many.
Unpaid Internships and Legal Action
Those violating the internship guidelines put forth by the Department of Labor leave themselves vulnerable to legal action. To date, several major class action lawsuits have been filed, including the well-known ‘Black Swan’ lawsuit brought by two former interns against Fox Searchlight Pictures, a lawsuit against Elite Model Management and a settlement by the Charlie Rose show for $250,000 to compensate nearly 200 former unpaid interns.
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