Top 3 industries notorious for exploiting unpaid interns

Business, Money, Rights

Interning on an Academy-Award winning film might seem like a great opportunity. But when Alex Footman worked on “Black Swan,” he didn’t learn new skills. Instead, his “opportunities” involved taking out trash, making coffee, scheduling lunch orders and cleaning production offices.

True, those are typical activities for a production assistant. But there was just one problem. Footman wasn’t being paid — and neither were the other interns.

Their case wasn’t an isolated one. Even though Department of Labor guidelines specifically say not to replace paid positions with unpaid ones, it was routine practice for employers in competitive industries. And interns rarely fought back.

But the interns of “Black Swan” didn’t stay silent. They launched a class action lawsuit, Glatt vs. Fox Searchlight Pictures, and demanded pay for their work. At the time, this was almost unheard of. The treatment of unpaid interns was seen as just another fact of the industry — something that would never change.

When the “Black Swan” case resulted in a victory for the interns, the dam broke. A wave of internship lawsuits followed, each alleging similar conditions. A vast majority of them were associated with industries that are typically considered elite, glamorous or hard to break into. Industries like fashion, publishing and entertainment.


Want to break into the glamorous world of fashion? Get ready to do some grunt work.

Imagine a personal assistant position that requires you to work for free, 40+ hours a week. Oh, and you need to be available on weekends, both day and night, to do “anything at any time.” Sound like a bad joke? In most industries, it would be. Yet in the fashion industry, this is commonplace.

Suffering through Meryl Streep’s tirades in “The Devil Wears Prada” might seem bad, but the reality is often worse. Many aspiring fashionistas work as unpaid errand runners. In some cases, they may not get any relevant experience at all.

Despite the bleak conditions, competition to get these positions is still fierce. An internship at a world-renowned fashion house can go a long way for the intern’s future career, even if it doesn’t provide actual experience. But that doesn’t mean these internships aren’t a problem.

Because of that same competition, interns who might otherwise report issues often avoid taking action. 

Many illegal internships go unreported — not because the interns are happy with the arrangement, but because they fear career-limiting consequences like being blacklisted or vilified. If you’re just getting started in your career, this might not be a risk you’re willing to take.

The good news is that it only takes a few people to have a significant impact. The $450,000 settlement that Elite Model Management paid earlier this year was one of the largest on record, and it sprung from the actions of a single intern. Settlements like this may not establish precedent, but they can inspire others to take action. And they can also cause companies to restructure their internship programs.

Publishing industryIn publishing, there’s more talent than opportunity.

If you’re trying to break into the publishing industry, you’ve probably heard this common refrain: “We don’t have any entry level positions available at the moment, but we are taking unpaid interns.” And, while this may seem like a chance to get your foot in the door, it’s important to know that it may not lead to an actual career. These internships are often just a way for companies to get talented people to crank out work for free.

But that hasn’t stopped people from taking internships in publishing. It’s a highly competitive field, and the number of applicants for any internship far exceeds the number of available positions. Not to mention that this industry is teeming with eager talent, ready to do whatever it takes to get a byline or a few good samples. Many publishers take advantage of this competition to exploit their unpaid interns.

In 2013, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center estimated that two-thirds of internships were likely illegal.

So why are so many internships in publishing illegal? It’s because interns are routinely asked to do the work of paid employees. One recent lawsuit involved unpaid interns who were allegedly publishing the exact same content that paid employees had been hired to publish. That might seem like a cut and dry case, but publishing still lags behind other industries in curbing illegal internships.

Part of the problem is that the line between educational experience and paid work at a publishing house is often fuzzy. In light of this, publishing will likely have to see further legal action before it starts seeing any significant changes.


Interns working on music and film productions often end up doing real work for free.

Picture this: you’ve just been hired as an unpaid intern at a major record label. When you show up, you find out your position is the same as a regular employee — minus the pay. And, as the low-man on the totem pole, you’re also the first one to fetch coffee and make photocopies.

Unpaid internships and the entertainment industry have a long history. For decades, young interns worked for free or for little pay, in hopes of getting a leg up. This was so widely accepted that when the interns working on “Black Swan” launched their lawsuit, they were  pegged as ungrateful in the press. After all, one publication claimed, the entertainment industry is so popular that people would pay to work in it.

But Department of Labor regulations aren’t based on an industry’s popularity. When Glatt vs. Fox Searchlight Pictures was decided, New York’s Southern District Court ruled in favor of the interns. Ironically, less than two years later, one of the publications that called the interns ungrateful was sued by its own interns for allegedly using them as unpaid labor.

That doesn’t mean that people have stopped taking internships that they know are illegal. But what the “Black Swan” case did do was break the culture of silence on unethical internships in the entertainment industry.

Today, the entertainment industry easily wins the dubious honor of “most frequently sued over unpaid internships.” As a result, people are beginning to reject the idea that they need to perform menial tasks just to maybe get a paying job down the line.

Recent court cases are putting unpaid internships in the spotlight.

Lawsuits like Glatt vs. Fox Searchlight Pictures have brought into focus the ugly reality of unpaid internships, and empowered interns to come forward. And even cases that resulted in losses for interns have still brought about more awareness.

From 2012 to 2013, the number of unpaid internship lawsuits tripled. That’s a significant wake-up call for companies who’ve been taking advantage of their interns. And while some of those companies may respond by canceling their internship programs altogether, the truth is that unpaid internships were never meant to be a source of free labor — they’re meant to provide a learning experience.

This article originally appeared with Avvo’s “Is your internship legal?” quiz. Take the quiz now to find out if your internship is legal or not.

Related Articles: