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Interns sue Fox Searchlight, but is unpaid labor here to stay?

Two unpaid interns on the Fox Searchlight film,
Two unpaid interns on the Fox Searchlight film, "Black Swan," allege in a suit filed in Manhattan that the studio broke federal labor laws.

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Internships have a dominant role in our economy, with 2 million people joining the intern ranks every year. The film industry has long had a culture of internships, lowly production assistants and gophers, but since the recession many companies have become accustomed to depending on free labor. Now a federal lawsuit filed in New York claims that some of the success of last year's film "Black Swan" came on the backs of unpaid interns in violation of federal labor laws.

Eric Glatt, one of two former interns that filed the suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, claims that the studio gave him work that did not provide an educational experience and required him to fulfill tasks normally assigned to paid employees.

"I worked in the accounting department where I performed all the normal duties of an accounting clerk," Glatt said.

"Black Swan" was one of Glatt's first major Hollywood films, but he knew what to expect from the unpaid internship, having previously worked on independent and documentary movies.

"Everybody knows that you keep your mouth shut and you don't speak up and you accept that tasks that are considered 'intern jobs' and that's how you get ahead," Glatt said.

Ross Perlin, the author of the book "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy," said that Glatt's experience as an intern is a classic one — he just decided to do something about it.

"Internships are kind of a curious blend of privilege and exploitation," Perlin said.

For many young employees fresh out of college, unpaid internships are a luxury they can't afford. Students are struggling to pay back loans or come from a working class family where all their efforts must go towards making money.

Perlin said that the "internship boom of the last couple decades" has led to nearly 75 percent of college students doing at least one internship before they graduate. There has also been a burgeoning trend of "serial interns," who are forced to work four, five or six internships before landing a paid job.

For Glatt and "Black Swan," he knew what to expect as an unpaid intern because he had worked on documentaries and independent films before. But as his understanding of labor laws evolved and he became more aware of the widespread misuse of unpaid interns, he decided to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of all interns.

Glatt said he is trying to get the public's attention on this illegal issue that's hurting American workers.

"I realize I'm making a sacrifice for some future opportunities for myself in exchange for something else," Glatt said, in regards to the probable end of his Hollywood career after this high-profile lawsuit.

Glatt's central argument is that labor should be paid in all companies that are making a profit for themselves and their shareholders, and that minimum wage exemptions are often unlawfully exploited.

But if Glatt's lawsuit is successful and all interns must be paid, there's a possibility that fewer internships will be offered, diminishing opportunities for young people starting out.

"It's like a badge of honor that they've suffered through an internship," Glatt said, but it doesn't have to be that way. "I'm actually speaking up on their behalf ... I think that all future interns should be thankful that they're going to get paid."

Since Perlin began researching his book in 2007, he's seen how drastically the recession has exacerbated this unpaid intern issue over the past three years. Real jobs have been replaced by unpaid internships.

"Internships are now part of the problem," Perlin said. "Paid internships are now increasingly turning into unpaid internships."

Glatt filed the lawsuit last week along with fellow intern Alex Footman.

- Hayley Fox


Eric Glatt, former intern for Fox Searchlight and one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Ross Perlin, author of the book "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy."