Legal frivolities aside, this raises some serious questions about the perils of free internships. Indeed, we’ve questioned whether they make any sense at all, especially if class credit or a significant training program isn’t attached.
But are they illegal?
Enter Justin Henry, an unpaid intern for Warner Music Group label Atlantic Records back in 2007. According to a lawsuit obtained by the International Business Times, Henry “primarily spent his days filing, faxing, answering phones and fetching lunch for paid employees” for a period of 8 months.
There was no job offer waiting at the other end, and little coaching or training for the Brooklyn-based Henry. Instead, Henry was brewing coffee and… faxing (?) stuff for up to ten hours a day (in some fairness, this was back in 2007).
“We think that Justin performed valuable services while he was at Atlantic Records, and we think he deserves to be paid,” Henry attorney Maurice Pianko told IBTimes. “We are confident that a jury will agree.”
This all sounds like standard intern stuff, though Henry’s attorneys now claim Warner was in clear violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law, both of which have clear stipulations and conditions around free work. Specifically, body of law states that unpaid interns must receive some tangible training benefit, and/or perform work that has no immediate, tangible benefit to the company.
The lawsuit, which seeks back-pay of $7.25 an hour, raises serious issues about music industry labor. For the unpaid intern, jobs are rarely waiting on the other side, not just at a label but all sorts of other music industry sectors.
Which also introduces problems of exploitation, especially in today’s job market. Most interns are teenagers or young twenty-somethings, a group that faces severe employment challenges and oftentimes, burdensome student loans. An unpaid internship compounds that issue by sacrificing paid work and an income stream, all in the hopes of landing a future gig.