Interns Resist Working Free

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Link to New York Times Article By ELLA DELANY

Published: September 29, 2013

NEW YORK — A backlash against unpaid internships in America, manifested in a spate of lawsuits this year, is now spreading to Europe, where the issue of exploitation hit headlines in August with the death of the German intern Moritz Erhardt, 21, after allegedly working at Merrill Lynch’s London office for 72 hours without sleep.

Unpaid internships have been around for a long time in the United States, but the number has ballooned in recent years, said Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

Saxon Baird, 29, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, says he has already completed six internships. “Only one internship really paid an amount that I could scrape by on,” Mr. Baird said: “In places like Vogue, I was getting paid $12 a day and working 25 to 30 hours a week. So, while that was technically a paid internship, it might as well not have been.”

He said that his internship at Vogue included some perks — like invites to celebrity parties and a few bylines — but he spent a large amount of time running errands, and acting as a substitute for a salaried employee.

Mr. Baird’s experiences are increasingly typical of graduates trying to break into the job market, whether in the United States or Europe.

According to the 2011 European Parliament Committee on Petitions, in France and Germany alone an estimated 1.5 million people undertake an internship each year. A European Youth Forum Survey found that around half of Europe’s internships are unpaid, and 45 percent do not pay enough to support day-to-day living.

A European Commission report, released last year, found that young people in Europe are increasingly undertaking internships on the open market, outside of an educational framework, after graduating or completing professional training. Governments are promoting such internships across the European Union to address youth unemployment, yet these internships are often unregulated and unpaid, leaving interns vulnerable to exploitation — and they are not necessarily helping graduates to find a salaried job.

An E.U.-wide survey of interns conducted in 2011 by the European Youth Forum found that 37 percent of respondents had undertaken three or more internships. In Britain, a poll by the National Union of Students last year found that 43 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds believed unpaid internships to be a major barrier to employment.

Research conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the United States suggests that pay is an important indicator of the value of an internship to graduate job seekers. A 2011 survey found that 61 percent of students who worked in a paid internship were offered a job when they graduated, compared with 38 percent of students who took an unpaid position.

This helps to explain why U.S. graduates are increasingly challenging the idea that they should work for free in order to gain a foothold in the global job market — most notoriously through a series of high-profile class actions against companies including Fox Searchlight Pictures, Atlantic Records and Condé Nast.

In June this year, a federal judge in New York found that the Fox unit had violated minimum wage laws by not paying interns on the set of the film “Black Swan.”

U.S. Department of Labor guidelines state that an internship must benefit the intern rather than the employee. After the landmark Black Swan ruling, “even in the ‘sexy’ industries like publishing and media, companies are starting to take notice,” said Donald C. Dowling Jr., a junior partner in international employment law, at the New York law firm White & Case.

Mr. Perlin said the ruling — and copycat cases that have followed — may have marked a turning point. “Over 20 lawsuits, a major precedent from a federal judge, extensive press coverage, changing policies at companies and colleges, as well as new campaigns led by young people — all of these are starting to alter dramatically the culture of unpaid work and the internship economy,” he said.

U.S.-style class action lawsuits are relatively rare in Europe, even in countries where they are legally possible. Still, European protests against unpaid internships are on the rise. Organizations such as Intern Aware in the United Kingdom, Génération Précaire in France and La Repubblica Degli Stagisti in Italy collect accounts from dissatisfied interns, offer legal information and resources, organize protests, and generate press coverage.

The European Parliament itself offers a variety of unpaid positions, and in July this year a “sandwich protest” saw Brussels interns congregating to protest against unfair working conditions. The protest’s Facebook page said, “It is a fact that many interns are working without any reimbursement, without a contract, or in a framework of inappropriate payment and working hours.”

These protests are having an impact. Ben Lyons, co-director of Intern Aware, has worked with lawyers in Britain to help interns to come to private settlements with a number of high-profile companies, including the department store Harrods. Mr. Lyons said recent initiatives in Britain have included an investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs into breaches of minimum wage laws, which has already claimed back almost £200,000, or $320,000, in unpaid wages for interns, and a new government policy, announced last month, of “naming and shaming” employers in breach of minimum wage laws.

Other European countries are also adopting more stringent regulatory practices. In France, the Loi Cherpion, passed last year, strengthens the legal rights of interns — stipulating, among other things, that interns working for more than two months must receive the minimum wage. In Austria, employers are being offered wage subsidies to keep interns on. Last year’s European Commission report suggested that a clear E.U.-wide definition of an intern, greater transparency in the internship recruitment process, and higher levels of compensation for interns would help protect young workers from exploitation.

Young people’s skills and qualifications can no longer guarantee their entry into the job market, the commission report said, and regulating and monitoring internships will be key in creating equity of access and fair working conditions.

The commission’s recommendations were undercut by the Parliament’s unpaid internships, and the fact that its own internships pay less than the minimum wage in Belgium, its host country.

Still, Mr. Lyons said he was confident that regulatory reforms would continue — and spread — across Europe. “We are seeing a rising sense that, as our countries recover from the recession, unpaid internships should not become a structural part of the economy,” he said.

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