Panelists discuss the problems and promise of unpaid internships

all the panelists + john flanaganMonday night, five panelists gathered to discuss the legality and fairness of unpaid internships at an event titled “Unpaid = Unfair?” sponsored by the Kalmanovitz Initiative and the Georgetown Solidarity Committee.  Each of the panelists spoke about a different aspect of the issues that arise with unpaid internships.

The panelists were Nancy Donaldson, the Director of the Washington Office of the International Labour Organization, a specialized United Nations labor initiative, Ross Eisenbrey, the Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute, Eric Glatt, the plaintiff in the case Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., as well as an advocate for interns, and a Georgetown Law student, Mohammad Sheikh, the Assistant Director of Labor Standards, and Rory O’Sullivan (LAW ’11), the Policy and Research Director for the intern advocacy group Young Invincibles.

The panel opened with a brief introduction by the panelists, each of whom discussed a different aspect of the debate of whether unpaid internships constitute fair labor. Donaldson and Sheikh both discussed the changing face of the global labor market and how it affects the domestic workforce. Eisenbrey detailed the economic efficacy of paying interns and introduced an important piece of legislation: the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which defined what constituted paid work. He also posited that the current American higher education system is to blame for providing high-profile companies with an endless supply of students eager to fill unpaid positions.

Glatt told the story of his case against Fox, from his unpaid internship on the film Black Swan to his eventual realization that the labor he provided the company merited pay. Representing the District’s Department of Employment Services, Sheikh emphasized that an employer has to take responsibility for every person on staff, including medical bills in the case of an accident on the job. He also offered to personally take on investigative cases of  employers flouting the law through unpaid internships, offering his contact information to all present. O’ Sullivan pushed for the United States to model itself after Germany in terms of vocational programs and apprenticeships for high school students in order to improve their chances of employment.

As the panelists questioned each other and opened the floor to questions, there were several points that were repeatedly made throughout. The first was that interns should know their rights. The Department of Labor released Fact Sheet #71 in April 2010 that explains the six criteria for an unpaid internship. The second is that internships are just as important to the employer as the employee, which gives even unpaid interns leverage in the discussion over wages. Donaldson made a highly pertinent point for Georgetown students, saying, “This town lives on interns … everybody should care about this.” Glatt reiterated this argument, placing the onus on the University itself for disenfranchising its student body. “The University … should stop feeding free labor to employers.”

Eisenbrey also spoke about the way the unpaid internships reinforce existing economic structures. Speaking of internships in Congress, he said, “Upper-middle class kids permeate the industry … shutting off opportunities for people who are voiceless.”

Photo: Julia Tanaka/Georgetown Voice

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