We see portrayals of the harried, job-hungry intern all the time in the media. Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. The whole plot of The Internship with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson is that a group of interns at Google are competing for a chance at paid employment. Those looking for a chance for their dream job are expected to pay their dues and gain some experience in an internship.
Part of paying those dues? Not being paid.
The unpaid internship is viewed as a rite of passage for recent graduates or new immigrants looking to gain work experience to catapult into a career. Lasting 6 weeks, 4 months, 6 months, or even a year, these internships promise their applicants to teach them skills to thrive in the workforce. These internships can take place with small businesses, but the most lauded positions are with major corporations. Some of these internships, if done for school credit and taught in a way that the intern is learning and not profiting the company, can be an amazing opportunity for the intern to gain knowledge of the working world, network, and get experience. However, many more of these internships are exploitative, with unpaid internships replacing and erasing entry level jobs.
The amount of individuals taking on unpaid internships is unmonitored. However, there may be as many as 300,000 unpaid interns working in Canada alone.
As an intern, challenging your employer is a daunting choice to make. After all, they hold the keys to your reference, your possibility of being kept on with the company you are interning with, and your chance at a career.
These are five interns who stood up to their employers.
5 THE BLACK SWAN MOVIE INTERNS
40-year-old Eric Glatt gave up a $95 000 insurance job at American International group to pursue his dream career as a film editor. After spending $5500 on a film editing course, he signed on to work as an intern with the production team of the 2010 Oscar-winning film, Black Swan. The nine month position was unpaid.
During his time as an intern, Glatt fetched tea, candles and a hypoallergenic pillow, as well as running other errands for director Darren Aronofsky.
Eric Glatt and fellow Black Swan intern Alexander Footman took on Hollywood when they decided that their internship had been exploitative and had contradicted the Department of Labour's 2010 ruling of the six major criteria for unpaid internships. Namely, that the training given to interns should be “similar to that given in an educational environment”, that the company or employer gains “no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern” and that the intern does not “displace regular employees”. Glatt and Footman, figuring their internships had benefited Fox Searchlight and the production team of Black Swan more than it had benefited them, filed a class lawsuit against the company.
A lot of people looking to build a career in the film industry see internships, whether paid or unpaid, as a foot in the door of a difficult, competitive industry.
Glatt, now a law student and 44 years old, says the lawsuit was “not about whiny millennials who don't want to do real work...it's the employer who is acting entitled...because they think they can get something for free, trading on the notion that it's cool to be on a set with someone like Aronofsky.”
4 THE ELITE MODEL MANAGER INTERNS
In February 2013, Dajia Davenport, a former unpaid intern for Elite Model Manager, slapped the company with a $50 million dollar class action lawsuit. She claimed that her internship in 2010, as well as the other unpaid internships with the modelling agency, were actually illegal. In addition to working over 40 hours a week, including on weekends, Davenport said Elite “deliberately misclassified its interns as exempt from wage requirements,” including basic minimum wage.
Although the American company was not made to shell out $50 million, the District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favour of a $450,000 class settlement. This ensured each intern who was found to have worked an unpaid internship that was deserving of pay would receive a payment between $700 and $1750. The interns were required to submit a claim form, whereby the amount that would be owed would be researched and would take into account the amount of time they worked at the internship.
Although this might seem like a substantial reduction in the settlement, it is one of the largest intern class action settlements to date.
3 THE BELL MOBILITY INTERNS
Jainna Patel was 23 when she worked as an unpaid intern with Bell Mobility in Bell’s Professional Management Program for five weeks in 2012. The program took on 280 post-secondary graduates every year to work full time in three- or four- month stints on projects meant to prepare them for their future careers.
Patel said the program was not as advertised, and she and her peers spent their days (including overtime) conducting phone surveys, transcribing video, filling spread sheets and market research.
“"It felt like I was sitting in an office as an employee, doing regular work. It didn’t feel like a sort of training program," Patel, now 24, said to CBC News in 2013. “They just squeezed out of you every hour they could get and never showed any intent of paying.”
Patel filed a complaint in 2012 with the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, claiming that Bell owed her almost $2500. Another anonymous intern, now 27, spent two months in the program and also filed his complaint with the government when he realized that he also may have a claim to unpaid wages for his work with Bell.
Patel's wage claim had been rejected by a federal labour inspector in October 2013. Patel has appealed the decision.
2 THE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN INTERN
In 2009-2010, Rachel Watson (not her real name but a pseudonym she and her lawyers insist on) worked as an unpaid intern for the British fashion house Alexander McQueen (founded by the late Alexander McQueen).
During her four month internship, Watson dyed fabrics, repaired clothing, and drew artwork for embroidery. She realized that she was doing the work of an entry level employee, but without payment.
Watson approached the group Intern Aware, a campaign group that helps raise awareness of the exploitative nature of many unpaid internships, and aid interns in lawsuits against their former employers. Watson sued for up to 6415 pounds in “lost wages”, the equivalent of $10,739 USD.
When questioned why she had accepted the unpaid position in the first place, Watson said she saw "almost no other way into the fashion industry". She said, "I quickly realized I was being exploited. How could I confront my employer at the time when they held all the cards to my future in the industry?"
Alexander McQueen listed their profits in 2010 as 3.28 million pounds, or 5.f million USD.
"We understand this relates to an intern who was with us four years ago. We had no idea until now that she had any concern about the time she spent at Alexander McQueen.” A spokesperson for Alexander McQueen said.
The British fashion house now allegedly pays all of their interns.
1 THE SONY INTERN
25-year-old Chris Jarvis applied to an unpaid internship with Sony Computer Entertainment in Cambridge in 2012. Jarvis was a recent video games design graduate from Norwich University. He applied for the role of “3D Environment Artist Intern”, expecting that he would be learning through the company by shadowing a Sony designer.
Instead, after enduring a three and a half hour round trip commute to the Sony Office, Jarvis was made to test 3D artwork for games from 9:30 AM to 6 PM from September to December. Sony originally agreed to cover the cost of the commute, but stopped after a month. Unsure of what to do, Jarvis looked into his rights as an intern, and realized that he was doing the work of a paid employee.
Jarvis politely informed his employer that, since he was doing the work of an employee, they owed him a minimum hourly wage of at least 6.19 pounds, or 10.36 USD.
Sony ignored his claim.
“They were very dismissive and told me I was a volunteer and that's how I could work for free,” Jarvis told the Daily Mail.
The case went to a tribunal, and Sony ended up paying Jarvis 4600 pounds ($7701 USD), a full thousand pounds ($1674.20 USD) more than Jarvis requested. They also asked Jarvis to sign a gagging order to keep the case under wraps.