You may or may not have seen the news yesterday that a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar is suing Hearst Co. for unpaid work during her unpaid internships, which violated state and federal labor laws.
We’ve gone over unpaid internships on Hacks quite a bit – and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but this development in the US is something I think is quite important.
The general info is nicely summed up here in this article from the New York Times.
It goes something like this:
Back in 2010 Xuedan Wang worked at Harper’s Bazaar as an intern, generally working 40 hours a week but sometimes as many as 55 hours. Her lawyers allege in the suit that Wang, with a degree in strategic communications “coordinated pickups and deliveries of fashion samples between Harper’s Bazaar and fashion vendors and showrooms and assigned other unpaid interns to help carry out the pickups and deliveries.”
Right, we’ve all heard the story. You snag an internship (work experience, whatever) for “educational purposes”, yet you’re left doing nonsense that has nothing to do with your field and more or less being used as a gopher working stupid hours and getting paid nothing for it.
This is where some people say something like “oh that’s how it is, you pay your dues to get in the field.”
That attitude is keeping this sort of practice alive as far as I’m concerned. There is a level of respect to be demanded from anyone who offers us a chance. Yes, we’re at the bottom of the run and yes, we may not be getting paid, but we do deserve some respect by means of employers, or momma birds taking us youngins under their wings, giving us an opportunity to learn.
This case, which could potentially turn into a class action lawsuit, is nothing but a good thing. It’s high time this practice has been brought to light in the US.
There are a myriad of reasons why unpaid internships are inexcusable, but the one that I’ve always felt strongest about was the simple fact that the more publishers/newspapers/media outlets realize they can get away with what is essentially exploitation, the more inaccessible our field is for wannabes.
Internships and work experience are vital to finding work, but as it is now in the US, there are very few paid internships available and those are highly competitive, which is to be expected.
There are however an abundance of unpaid gigs, but really, who can afford to work unpaid, oftentimes in large cities. Not many people. Since most of these gigs are for “educational credit” you either need to go to a school that can afford to give you a stipend or come from a family willing to support you.
It’s a tricky situation and one that not a lot of people can afford to navigate. Not everyone comes from a well-to-do family and not everyone goes to a school that would offer financial support. It prevents quite a few who are really talented at their jobs from getting a foot into this industry.
I’ve had both paid and unpaid internships and both required much of me. I felt like I was an employee working full hours when I was paid, and when I was unpaid, I had to abide by very, very strict labor laws, despite the fact that I wanted to work for free, as much as I can.
Whatever comes of this suit, it can only be a good thing. We either need a different way to look at providing meaningful work experience for students, a much better oversight of FEDERALLY MANDATED labor laws or just a sea change in attitude from us.
Maybe the age of traditional internships to finding a job is done. And maybe it’s time to take a more hands-on, do-it-yourself approach to breaking into the industry.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look