Free Labor: Is there value in an unpaid internship?

Earlier this week I came across an interesting article by Beenish Ahmed at NPR on the topic of Unpaid Internships and a class-action lawsuit that is now being levied against Fox Searchlight Productions by interns seeking to win back pay for the hours that they worked. While these interns were not “forced” to work for free, the role of interns in the workforce has clearly changed over the past few years, and in a bad economy, seemingly being abused.

Growing up internships (or externship) were considered a valuable part of one’s education. It was a way to get real-world training in exchange for college credit, whether it was over the summer or January break. Personally I would always prefer to be “on the job” than in a classroom, so I loved interning and found it valuable in helping me figure out just what is was that I wanted to be when I grew up. My employers were mentors, giving me back, as much as I gave (thank you Philicia & Jim Feeney), and treating the experience very much like an old world apprenticeship.

Today, it would seem that more employers are abusing this relationship, far past college, and using interns as nothing more than free labor. In a depressed economy, job seekers are doing anything they can to get their foot in the door, and not just college kids, but Americans of all ages, and businesses are clearly taking advantage of this desperation. What’s most galling is that we are not talking about cash strapped business or charities, but companies like Fox Searchlight Productions who have deep pockets, and can easily afford to pay minimum wage to people working their tails off. Yes, it is great to get experience, but in absence of getting college credit or learning a skill or trade that would have required financial investment, it is abuse, plain and simple. I even read a post by John Stossel yesterday, defending the practice at Fox Business News, telling the Labor Department, who is now looking into this matter, to “Butt out, federal bullies.”

So like anything the trick is to know your rights, and look for jobs and internships that value your contributions or provides measurable training. In 2010 the Labor Department created a 6 point test  for-profit internships to comply with labor laws: The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

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Lynn