Are unpaid interns being taken advantage of?


A recent lawsuit against Fox Entertainment Group claims that their unpaid internship program violated minimum wage laws. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Adam Fagen via Creative Commons)

Internships are beneficial, important learning experiences for students and pre-professionals. Often, they are seen as the best way to “get your foot in the door” of an industry. However, internships aren’t always glamorous; assignments may include administrative work, taking coffee orders or running errands.

Former unpaid Fox Searchlight Pictures interns who worked on Black Swan (2010) are filing a class action lawsuit against Fox Entertainment Group, according to a story by Daniel Miller and John Horn of the Los Angeles Times. They are seeking “back pay, damages, and an order barring the use of unpaid interns,” claiming that the programs were benefitting the companies–not the interns.

Tasks mentioned in the article included going out to buy a hypoallergenic pillow, buying tea, and selected “the perfect scented candle.” Assignments like these are common in entertainment internships, but is there a point where this is becoming manipulative?

This issue has been debated a countless amount of times. The Fair Labors Standards Acts has laws that establish what constitutes an unpaid internship. The lawsuit claims that Fox Entertainment Group violated several of these criteria, but it seems they can be hard to prove. Whether a program violates them or not all depends on perspective.

Everything is a learning experience if you choose to see and think that way. Since interns don’t always have a repertoire of work to back their talents up, assigning seemingly menial tasks can be a way of testing the waters. Running errands tests the ability to take direction. Perfecting coffee orders exercises the “attention to detail” skill written down on resumes. Aggregating press clippings ensures that you are aware of the current events involving your organization. Proving successful at these tasks means you can move onto assignments with greater responsibility.

I think unpaid internships are a great opportunity. In a way, paid internships are like supervised jobs, which implies that interns are familiar with the role enough to excel with that much responsibility. Unpaid internships allow one to get to experience without the pressure that comes with a paycheck. Then, use them as a stepping stone into a paid position (whether it be an internship or job).

At the end of the day, if the job description was accurate, interns know what they are getting into. At least, one should definitely ask for more details about what the internship entails during the recruitment interview. If the job descriptions and responsibilities line up with what you want out of an opportunity, move onto the next. In the end, it’s all about attitude.

When do you think an unpaid internship crosses the line and become an unpaid assistant job? Does that line even exist?


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