Tweep @biochemprof pointed to a story of the day about a judicial ruling that unpaid interns on a movie production should have been paid. The story via via NBC:

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight should have paid two interns on the movie “Black Swan,” because they were essentially regular employees.

The judge noted that these internships did not foster an educational environment and that the studio received the benefits of the work. The case could have broad implications. Young people have flocked to internships, especially against the backdrop of a weak job market.

“Weak job market”, my eye. I still recall the disbelief I was in during the end of my senior year in college when my friends described how they “had to” take unpaid internships. There were several industries (I can’t recall the specifics at this far remove) for which my fellow newly bachelor degree’d worker drones were convinced they had to start their careers by working for free. Having secured what I thought was a pretty good gig, being paid the 2013 equivalent of $23,000 per year to earn my PhD, I felt comparatively fortunate. There is no way in hell, or so I thought at the time, that I would be able to have followed such a path. I needed to do something that was going to put a roof over my head and at least some cheap pasta on the table. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I grew up in an academic household. So the parental support for me going into academics was pretty good. However, it was by no means a fantastically well-off household either, being academic, and there was no way in hell my parents were going to pay all my bills deep into my 20s. I had to get a job that was going to pay me something. So I did.

As far as I can tell, the phenomenon of “unpaid internships” for both recent college grads and other long term or temporary would-be-workers has not diminished substantially.

Unpaid internships are a labor-exploitation scam.

Period.

In any industry.

And according to the NBC bit, this is the beginning of a long slog of court cases making exactly this point.

The “Black Swan” case was the first in a series of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns.

In February 2012, a former Harper’s Bazaar intern sued Hearst Magazines, asserting that she regularly worked 40 to 55 hours a week without being paid. Last July, a federal court ruled that the plaintiff could proceed with her lawsuit as a collective action, certifying a class of all unpaid interns who worked in the company’s magazines division since February 2009. This February, an unpaid intern sued Elite Model Management, seeking $50 million.

After a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns, Charlie Rose and his production company announced last December that they would pay back wages to as many as 189 interns. The settlement called for many of the interns to receive about $1,100 each — amounting to roughly $110 a week in back pay, for a maximum of 10 weeks, the approximate length of a school semester.

As part of his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Pauley also granted class certification to a group of unpaid interns in New York who worked in several divisions of the Fox Entertainment Group.

Good.

Look, obviously there will be much legal parsing about the relative benefit of unpaid work to both the employer and the employee. But the basic principles should be clear and easily understood in plain language and we should be highly attentive to where the putative “educational” or “training” benefit to the employee is being oversold and the relative work-product benefit to the employer is being intentionally undersold to justify the exploitation.

This brings me to us, DearReader. By which I mean my academic science peers, our research laboratories and the phenomenon of undergraduate or high-school “interns” who work without financial compensation. It is wrong, exploitative and immoral. We, you… our industry as a whole, should knock it off.

I am not swayed by arguments that you and your lab put more effort into summer interns than you get back in return. If this is so, stop taking them. Clearly, if you do take them then you get some sort of benefit. Even if that benefit is only that you can brag that you have trained numerous undergraduates or “provided a research experience” to several. But in many cases, these freebie interns do much that is of value and that you would otherwise have to pay someone else in the lab to do. At worst, this saves your lab on technician salaries or frees up the time of the betters in the lab to work on the more complicated stuff instead of washing glassware or making up buffers. In better situations the intern produces data that helps the lab forward on a project.

If this is the case, ever, then you have exploited the internship scam. You have accepted someone working for you for free. This is almost mind bogglingly immoral to me and I do not know how my fellow left-leaning academic types can bring themselves to ignore it.

I don’t care one whit that you have 10 or 20 requests each and every Spring from some undergrad on campus or some undergrad from another University that happens to live in your town and is home for the summer. I get them myself. They make it clear that they expect no compensation…all this tells me is that our business has successfully created a system of exploitation. We have convinced the suckers that they “have to” take these positions to advance in their own career goals.

This is absolutely no different from times in the past, prior to labor protections, in which workers “had to” accept dangerous working conditions, longer than 40 hour weeks, no breaks, employment of juveniles, low pay, company stores/towns that stole back much of the wages, etc, etc. The list is lengthy. In every case the industry had fantastic reasons for why they “had to” treat their employees in such a way. The workers themselves were often convinced things “had to” be that way. And what do you know? After hard fought labor protections were put in place the industries got along just fine.

So far, I have gotten along just fine without exploiting unpaid interns in my laboratory. If they are not getting compensated in some way, they don’t work in my lab. I plan to stick with this principle. In my book, training, recommendation letters and the nebulous concept of experience do not qualify as compensation. There should be an hourly wage that is at least as great as the local minimum wage. In some cases, under the formal structure of an undergraduate institution, course credit can be acceptable compensation. I would recommend keeping this to a minimum, particularly when it comes to summer internships and/or work conducted outside of the academic semester. With respect to this latter, no, you can’t skate on the scam that they are just finishing up what they started under a for-credit stint during the regular academic calendar.

In addition to the general immorality of science labs exploiting the powerless (those desiring to enter the career) there is another factor for you to consider. The unpaid internship scam has the effect of blocking the financially disadvantaged from entering a particular career. Think about your mental (or your department’s formal) graduate admissions schema. Does it prioritize those who have had some prior experience working in a research laboratory, preferably in a closely related field of work? Of course it does. Which means it prioritizes those who could afford to gain such experiences. Those who had parents who were willing to float their rent and food bills over the summer months instead of making them find a real job, such as installing itchy insulation in scorching hot attics for 10 hr days, digging ditches, busing tables or changing oil filters. (As I have come to hear postdocs making upwards of $35,000 per year and graduate students $29,000 per year — Federal minimum wage is about $15,000 at present — complain about their treatment, I am certainly coming to reconsider which type of undergraduate summer experience is really the best way to select doctoral students.)

Even if we do not apply an admissions filter, how would the latter type of undergraduate student even come to appreciate that a laboratory career might be for them?

Clearly the solution is to find a way to pay our scientific interns. Much of the time, these mechanisms exist and it is mere laziness on the part of the PI that keeps the intern from being paid. There are administrative supplements to NIH grants for disadvantaged students that are, from what I hear, pretty much there for the asking as they are underutilized. Local summer-experience programs, small scale philanthropy and academic senate funds. Even if you cough up some grant money, what does 10 weeks cost you? Not that much. Can you look yourself square in the mirror and tell yourself honestly that you can’t afford the outlay from your grant and that you are not getting any value out of this prospective intern?

I can’t.

Unpaid internships are as much a scam and a labor exploitation in academic science labs as they are at Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Knock it off people.