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Unpaid internships often exploitative

On July 24, 2013

For those who have never had an internship, you might imagine something out of The Devil Wears Prada, chained to the hem of a purse-lipped Miranda Priestly, fetching coffee and dry cleaning, working long hours, all while watching your personal life go up in flames.

Unfortunately, some internships make an Andy Sachs out of the best of us, but what’s worse is it’s usually without pay.

For too long, employers have taken advantage of college interns and managed to keep their exploitative ways merely a blip on the radar screen. An estimated half of the one million internships undergraduates work in are unpaid according to Intern Bridge, the nation’s top college recruiting, consulting and research firm.

But now the interns are fighting back, not with fashion, but with federal lawsuits.

The New York Times reported federal judge William H. Pauley III ruled the two unpaid production interns who worked on the award-winning film Black Swan should have at least received minimum wage for their services. He ruled that the internship with Fox Searchlight Pictures did not provide an educational climate and the company itself benefited from its interns’ exertions.

This case, for which the lawsuit was filed two years ago, ignited the intern-led coup d’état.

The same judge outlined the appropriate circumstances under which it is acceptable to withhold pay from interns: The experience should put interns at the advantage, not vice versa, must be similar to the vocational training a student would receive in an educational environment and must not supersede the work of regular employees.

Notice, college credit in exchange for pay is not included as an appropriate circumstance.

I believe this to be fair. It’s not as if students directly receive college credit for their services — they pay for it. Internships are no exemption from tuition rates.

Some internships have students working nearly 40 hours a week. Throw that in with school and a social life just a notch below that of the Amish, and those students are left without any time to work jobs that will actually make contributions to their bank accounts.

Although, in some instances, internships provide students with real-life career experience, they can also be a gamble. With already no money to show for their hard work, students hope they’ll be compensated with letters of recommendation and job offers. However, in some cases the experience earns little more than a line on one’s resumé.

Following the Black Swan lawsuit, 20th Century Fox commented the company would seek to reverse the court’s ruling. It is my hope that the criteria outlined by both Judge Pauley and the Department of Education will be upheld.

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