A federal judge found that Fox Searchlight Picture violated federal law when it refused to pay interns that worked for the production of “Black Swan,” according to Reuters. The decision shakes up the practice many businesses have flocked to of bringing in interns, having them perform tasks that barely differ from the tasks that the employers pay employees to do, and then denying those interns pay and benefits under the guise that they are participating in an educational experience.
Employing interns to perform tasks and work while lying to them that they are receiving a genuine and important educational experience is a practice that accounts for a large workforce. Some reports claim that college students in internships account for over one million employees in the United States and, of that, a majority of those internships are unpaid. This is a segment of the workforce that is already vulnerable, often saddled with exorbitant student loans. The practice of not paying these students and recent graduates for their labor does nothing to move the economy forward.
Unpaid internships are allowable but only in circumstances where the intern is genuinely receiving an educational opportunity of great benefit. According to the Department of Labor, an internship can validly be unpaid if it meets criteria that it is similar to the training and education that would be given in an educational environment, the internship is for the benefit of the intern, and that the employer does not immediately benefit from the interns activities, among other things.
The lawsuit was filed back in 2011 by Eric Glatt and Alex Footman and alleged that the Fox Searchlight Pictures classified them as unpaid interns despite the fact that they worked more than 40 hours a week. The company used them and others, more than 100 others, to perform crucial secretarial and janitorial work on productions and movie sets.
Employing interns and refusing to pay them is a practice that has caught on in business in a similar way that cultures of perpetual temp employment have taken root in American business. Promulgating a culture of corporate greed and exploitation, the decision today of Judge Pauley is a warning to employers that the government is starting to reign in this subculture of free labor that they have taken such advantage of.
Joshua is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.