In his recent piece in Vice, former unpaid intern, Charles Davis, exposes the hypocrisy of liberal periodicals that write about labor exploitation but use unpaid interns to staff their newsrooms. According to Davis, even Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and advocate for low wage workers, claimed to have never thought about the issue of unpaid internships.
Luckily, with the spate of recent lawsuits, the tide appears to be turning. This June, a federal court ruled for the first time that interns who worked on the Fox film Black Swan were “employees” under federal and state wage laws and were entitled to minimum wage and overtime. This Spring, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals will hear two appeals in O&G’s cases against Fox and Hearst, in which it will rule on the standard courts should apply to decide whether interns are employees who must be paid. The ruling is likely to have profound implications for the very industries that appear to be the worst violators – mediand fashion – since these industries are based in New York City, where the Second Circuit sits.
These cases, and the attention they have brought to the issue of unpaid labor, have had an impact beyond the courtroom. Interns have begun to gain greater consciousness, forming groups like Intern Labor Rights, and many are speaking out against unpaid internships. As Davis notes, interns at The Nation convinced that publication to start paying them this year, and in response to Davis’s article, Mother Jones promised to start paying its interns at least the minimum wage. The media has picked up on the story too, and major outlets have done pieces critical of unpaid internships, including MSNBC, PBS, and many others.
In fact, more and more companies are starting to come around and have begun paying their interns. Some are doing so because they fear litigation but others are changing because they value the work their interns do. Regardless of their motive, the result will be more paid work for young workers — the demographic that has been the slowest to recover from the 2008 recession – and greater diversity at our most prominent companies.