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Vol. 76/No. 22      June 4, 2012

‘Interns’ file suit against unpaid labor
(front page)
NEW YORK—Deciding they had enough of working for free as interns, four workers have filed lawsuits against three companies for violating U.S. and state minimum wage laws.

“Employers’ failure to compensate interns for their work, and the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot, and indirectly contributes to rising unemployment,” says a class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 1 in federal court by Diana Wang against the Hearst Corporation.

Wang worked 55-hour weeks shipping hats from New York City to London, overseeing eight other unpaid interns and running around Manhattan picking up items from fashion houses and showrooms for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, published by Hearst.

“It was disgusting,” Wang, 28, told Time magazine. “I decided that someone had to put a stop to this practice which was going to go on forever and get worse before it got better.” Wang is demanding back wages and that Hearst end the practice of unpaid internships.

Eric Glatt, 42, and Alexander Footman, 24, filed a class action suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures on Sept. 28 last year. The two worked as unpaid interns on the film Black Swan. According to their suit, more than 100 interns have worked at the company without pay since September 2005.

The third suit was filed March 14 in the State Supreme Court in New York by Lucy Bickerton, a 25-year-old film student, against Charlie Rose Inc., which produces Public Broadcasting Service’s “Charlie Rose Show.” Bickerton’s lawsuit points out that under new federal and state law “an unpaid internship is only lawful in the context of an educational training program, when the interns do not perform productive work and the employer derives no benefit.”

“It doesn’t matter how old a worker is or how much experience they have, if they are performing productive work by law that employee must be paid the minimum wage,” Elizabeth Wagoner, a lawyer at the Outten and Golden law firm, which filed all three suits, told the Militant in a phone interview.

None of the three companies replied to requests for comment.

While some estimates on the number of interns in the U.S. range from 1 million to 2 million, “no one really knows how many there are, because no one keeps track,” Robert Shindell, director of content and resource development at Intern Bridge Inc., told the Militant in a phone interview from Austin, Texas.

The position of Intern Bridge, which promotes internships at universities across the country, is that in most cases interns should be paid at least minimum wage, said Shindell. But he thinks the lawsuits should be “laughed out of court” because “these were adults. … They knew what they were getting into.”

Nearly half of student internships are unpaid, according to an Intern Bridge study based on interviews with 27,000 students at more than 200 universities at the end of 2011, Shindell said.

When asked about how many times the Labor Department has acted to enforce the law against unpaid labor of interns, an agency spokesperson wrote that their “database does not allow us to track enforcement statistics specific to internships.” The agency does not keep track of the number of unpaid interns and “rarely receives complaints,” said the spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous.

The number of interns has skyrocketed since unemployment and job competition rose dramatically beginning in 2008. The rise of the “intern” category of labor and its uncompensated form has grown in step with declining wages, benefits and speedup by bosses looking to shore up their declining profits amid the deepening crisis of capitalism.

According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies are planning an 8.5 percent increase in summer internships this year.

But signs of initial resistance to the assault on labor in the form of rising “internships” is starting to show.

“I got feedback from students at one of the career fairs we sponsor saying that a lot of companies were offering unpaid internships and they thought it was inappropriate,” Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, told the Militant. “Students seem more aware of the issue than in the past.”
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