Those of you who regularly follow the cultural heritage and history community may recognize the #FreeArchaeology hash tag that has been all over Twitter. For those new to the message, it is part of a grass roots campaign in the history community to put a stop to the veritable exploitation of college students and recent graduates in the field. The common practice of hiring students for “college credit” in lieu of paying has become controversial in MANY fields, however its prominence seems to be striking within arts and culture.
For years, galleries, museums, theaters, publishing, and music and television production have relied on free labor to support their work, in exchange for course credit and the “experience” and fuller understanding of how these companies and organizations work. The pressure to change this practice has come under more scrutiny in the past 5 years. Following the recession, organizations began to rely more heavily on interns, requiring more responsibility, more hours, and in some instances doing work of a former paid employee.
Dr. Donna Yates posted about the issue on the blog Grotesque Stone Idols on Friday. She holds fast to her own personal experiences in discussing the issue, noting that institutions should be careful to distinguish interns from volunteers, providing them with course credit and/or real compensation for real work. Organizations have become very gray in the language of their postings: the much-discussed Alexander McQueen internship made clear it only provided a small stipend for food, but was not clear about course credit (its follow-up response to the criticism). Additionally, students are often PAYING their university for the course credit they are obtaining through their unpaid work. Students who require paid work to continue their studies, are further challenged with the ability to seek meaningful career opportunities.
In June, a federal judge in NY declared that Fox Searchlight had violated both state and federal minimum wage laws during the production of Black Swan. In his decision the judge included a 6-point test for whether or not an intern must be paid. The New York Times framed the decision as the beginning of a revolt or a call to arms. While the decision does help unite like-minded voices, it does not acknowledge any potential negative consequences. The Atlantic, through discussions with corporate lawyers, noted that many corporations may see too much labor liability and forego unpaid internships, reducing the number of internship opportunities overall – and furthering that disparity in opportunity for low income students.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the battle wages on – with even the White House being challenged on their use of unpaid interns. Unpaid internships will certainly impact the discussion over increasing the federal minimum wage and seem to have brought rise to more and more lawsuits. Many questions still remain, but I fear two the most: Will course credit continue to challenge the wage issue? Or worse, will interns become volunteers?