It’s time we ditched the term “internship.” The word’s greatest value to employers resides in its vagueness.
Take, for example, the production of the film Black Swan, for which I worked as an accounting clerk and a post-production assistant, but for which I was not paid wages.Why not? Because I, like scores of other workers on that film, was a relative newcomer to the industry. And being a newcomer to the film industry often means doing unpaid work, an illegal arrangement camouflaged behind the term “internship” — a term the movie industry embraces for its promise of alchemy, magically removing costs from budgets to the delight of producers and shareholders.
Unpaid internships originally evolved to provide a limited exemption from minimum wage and overtime requirements when worksite trainees receive vocational instruction. Such training must be truly and exclusively an educational experience that doesn’t replace the work of paid employees. Today, however, unpaid internships have metastasized into a labor market scourge.
Multiple factors have conspired to provide employers with this unprecedented pool of free labor: limited enforcement resources, a jobs crisis, inconsistent policies among credit-granting colleges, numerous compelling reasons for interns not to voice objections — plus the naïve faith that their universities and employers couldn’t be sanctioning a practice outside the law. Interns save employers an estimated $2 billion in annual unpaid wages according to Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation.
This widespread, opportunistic misapplication of the term “internship” has irrevocably leeched it of any legitimate value.
I walked into my “internship” knowing I would be expected to do real work. My class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures wasn’t driven by disappointment at being assigned less-than-glamorous tasks, but rather by my discovery that it simply isn’t legal for an employer to accept the benefit of an intern’s labor without paying for it, even when the intern agrees to work for no wage in hopes of getting a foothold in the industry.
To a college student or newly minted graduate, contributing behind the scenes in a beloved industry can undoubtedly be intriguing and exciting. But labor law isn’t selectively applicable relative to how exciting an opportunity is. Society maintains certain non-negotiable minimum requirements because otherwise employers will undermine the health of the overall labor market by pitting potential workers against each other in a competitive “race to the bottom” of the wage scale — a destination that has been reached when an unpaid intern’s only compensation is the promise of a job reference.
My work on Black Swan gave me an unexpectedly vivid view of how nakedly this practice is used to control production costs and of how thoroughly it has seeped into the industry’s DNA. It even entered the subtext in the film’s marketing, such as when director Darren Aronofsky explained to one interviewer that the film’s “really tough” $13-million budget meant that “lots of compromises” had to be made. What he doesn’t mention is that those compromises included violating labor laws with studio approval, following widespread industry practice.
It’s time for all parties to stop using a term that just obscures the truth. If your film production needs entry-level workers, identify them and pay them as such. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, an amount that shouldn’t break an honest budget. But if you want to keep believing in the magic alchemy of the word “internship,” let me give the last words to Nancy J. Leppink, the Labor Department’s deputy wage and hour administrator, as quoted in The New York Times: “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”