The Rights of Interns
“Would you like to pay $4400 to go work for no money?”
Amazingly enough, SAIC students keep answering “yes” to this absurd offer as they pay tuitions to take on internships for credits. Some are even required to accept it as part of their program. Undergraduate and graduate students pay for the equivalent of 1.5 to 3 credits to have the opportunity to go work — and sometimes, if they are lucky, learn — in the “real world,” most of the time, without financial compensation.
In some programs, such as the MA in Arts Administration and Policy and the MA in New Arts Journalism, the $4400 internship is a requirement. Conscious of the downsides this represents, faculty and staff within these programs have done their best to help graduates bypass the internship requirement, replacing it with a class or any other credit-granting activity.
Thanks to the efforts of the faculty and administrative staff at the school who have been responsive to students’ complaints, things are moving forward. The internship component will no longer be a curriculum requirement for the Arts Administration and Policy program as of next semester (for incoming students only). Hopefully, New Arts Journalism will adopt a similar stance. As students in both programs have stated in response to interviews with F Newsmagazine, they will do internships regardless of the requirement; they understand the value of the experience and do not need it to be inscribed in their curriculum, much less pay $4400 for it.
At SAIC, students’ thoughts about their internship experiences are mixed. Despite Co-op’s care in selecting employers to partner with, some students still report unsatisfying internships. In some cases, students perform tasks that offer neither learning nor creative growth, such as serving coffee, cleaning toilets and making photocopies. In other instances, students work an actual job, one entailing labor that would warrant actual employment under any other name, yet they do not get financial compensation or recognition for their creations.
To solve these problems, both students and administration need to communicate. Clearly, students need to express their concerns about their internships, as the school can not realistically check in on each individual case on a weekly basis. Yet, the school, and more specifically, Co-op, would need to be more thorough in teaching students what their rights as interns are, and what the employers’ duties and legal obligations are, too.
Unpaid internships and the legal definitions of employer and intern responsibilities are an ongoing debate on a national, if not international scale. The Los Angeles Times recently reported on a federal court case that could upend the movie industry. Two interns are suing Fox Searchlight demanding back pay for unpaid work during the production of the award-winning movie Black Swan. The Times article refers to Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, a book revealing that the estimated number of unpaid interns around the world amounts to 500,000 and that this practice saves businesses an annual $2 billion in labor costs.
Employers say that unpaid internships are learning experiences. Training. Students should be happy to learn without pay; it’s what they go to school for, and in some countries, including the US, that is actually what they pay for.
But the line between training and work is too easily crossed. As students, we are no longer invited for training and learning in a work environment; we are expected to work entry-level jobs for without pay.
According to the US Department of Labor, an employer is exempt from paying an intern only if “the internship … is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” if “the internship is for the benefit of the intern,” if “the intern does not displace regular employees,” and if “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” If you have ever done an unpaid internship that didn’t match this description, you have been unlawfully exploited.
An unpaid internship should be a learning experience. If employers aren’t planning to pay an intern, they should not expect the intern to have advance skills or experience and should expect to act as mentor and teacher.
Both at SAIC and in other schools around the country, internships should be an elective, leaving students to chose whether they wish to pay their university to learn in a work environment or to find internship opportunities for themselves. In any case, it is our school’s responsibility to make sure that the unpaid internships they offer to students do not require upper-level professional skills, yet assume an educational role benefiting the student before benefiting the employer.
As NYU and Columbia University have already set out to do, SAIC and the rest of US schools should strengthen their policies on both paid and unpaid internships and ensure that employers offering internships on those schools websites fully respect the Department of Labor guidelines. These measures would not only bring an end to the exploitation of professionally qualified students, they would also weaken the chain of privileges created by entry-level jobs disguised as unpaid internships, as only young adults from wealthy backgrounds can actually afford to take part in these.
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