In June, a federal district judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage law and overtime laws by treating unpaid interns as regular employees on the set of the 2010 film “Black Swan.” The case, along with many others, has shed light on the world of unpaid internships. Students are among the most vocal against the practice as many have been victim to injustices of these supposed mentorship opportunities. This recent movement brings to mind the University’s role in helping its students secure summer internships. The University’s Career Center and internship programs, such as the Public Service Internship Program and Semester in Detroit, are great resources for students to find internships. However, the University could do more for students financially by fundraising specifically for internship programs and working with other universities to provide reduced-rate housing. Furthermore, the Career Center should review the types of internships it posts to ensure that they are in fact mentorships if unpaid, not free labor, and create black lists of companies who abuse the positions.
Two successful internship programs promoted by the University are Semester in Detroit and the Public Service Internship Program in Washington D.C. While both programs offer financial aid, their support is limited. Semester in Detroit mandates that all participants reside in Wayne State University residence halls, meaning students must pay the steep rates and fees. Both programs award need-based financial aid to students who qualify through the University’s Office of Financial Aid. However, this award process doesn’t take into consideration students who may not receive much financial aid and must maintain continuous employment in order to remain financially stable. The University should expand financial aid to students considering unpaid internships especially in areas where unpaid is the norm.
Reports of abuse stemming from unpaid internships are on the rise. Since the ruling of the case against Fox, more than 20 lawsuits have been filed against major companies for their abuse of unpaid interns. The rights of these unpaid interns who are being taken advantage of by large corporations need to be protected. In order for an unpaid internship to be considered legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the intern must be provided an educational experience in the workplace and the company must not gain an immediate advantage from the intern. The University can help ensure these requirements are met by reviewing and scrutinizing the companies the Career Center posts on its internship website or are actively recruiting on campus. This would promote positive mentorship experiences for its students and reward companies who provide actual educational internship programs.
Internships play an important part in securing a job after college. Students who can afford to will continue to apply for unpaid internships and companies will still offer them. It’s up to universities like Michigan to acknowledge the reality of this situation and advocate for their students.