Friday, August 30, 2013

The High Cost Of Unpaid Internships

My article for Voice Of Russia

WASHINGTON (VOR)— Unpaid internships have become increasingly common in the current career landscape, becoming almost a requisite milestone in “growing up.”

Couched as an “investment in yourself,” and a place to “make contacts and get a job someday,” they are all too readily accepted as the only available path to full-time employment. Yet, the internships of today are a far cry from the apprenticeships of yore—by some estimates as many as 50% of internships are unpaid. Are they the quid-pro-quo arrangement they are posited as, or simply a front for employers to secure free labor that would otherwise have to be performed by an employee? With internships rife in all branches of the government, they stir up thorny questions about access, equality, and opportunity. A movement against unpaid and exploitative internships has been gaining steam since the economic crisis of 2008 made employment prospects especially bleak, and a number of important legal precedents are now in place. Ultimately, the question is not just whether internships give that extra experiential learning boost for interns’ resumes. The more important question is whether unpaid internships have become yet another playground of “the haves” that perpetuates the status quo of limited social mobility and income inequality.
The unemployment rate of the 16-24 age group today is more than double that of the remaining population, at nearly 20%. The average starting salary today is lower that it was in 2000. Internships have become so coveted in this stagnant climate that they have become a veritable industry—arguably one that lines the pockets of everyone involved but the interns themselves. Colleges charge students thousands in tuition money for the “opportunity” to earn academic credit for internships; a myriad of programs have sprung up promising students insider access to internships (The Washington Center and Washington Semester Program, to name a few). Yes, it is so competitive out there that securing an unpaid internship can be just as difficult, if not more, as securing regular employment.
Ross Perlin’s seminal work Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing And Learn Very Little In A Brave New Economyoffered one of the most thorough exposes on the issue, shattering the image of the typical intern as a college student and showing the sheer breadth of the intern demographic. A Georgetown law student, 41-year-old Eric Glatt, was one of those “non-traditional” interns, who in seeking to transition to a career in the film industry, worked as an unpaid intern on the set of the movie “Black Swan” in 2010, essentially performing the functions of an accounting clerk . In September 2011, after being referred by Ross Perlin to a lawyer, Glatt sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, asking for compensation for his work. “Obviously, this was not a suit about back pay only. It was a suit to put this culture under the legal microscope and see if it withstood the test in court." Some of the legal underpinnings of the suits have been the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Labor Department’s Fact Sheet 71. In a New York Times article, published on April 10, 2010, Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s wage and hour division, said, “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.” In essence, Fact Sheet 71 established the six federal legal criteria of what constitutes an internship. Glatt’s case proved that the standard very much holds—the judge ruled in favor of Glatt and his fellow interns, deeming their “intern” work to be labor requiring compensation and allowing the suit to continue as a class action one.
Glatt continues his activist work outside of court as well. He explains that a group he is a part of, Intern Labor Rights, initially began as a grass-roots offshoot from the Occupy movement, and has since grown to be a part of an international coalition with branches in six other countries, including the UK, France, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Canada. Describing the two main issues the group works on, he states “most organizations did not seem overly concerned with how the practice of unpaid interns fit within the law/legal code, nor did they worry about the ethics and economics of the practice.” In essence, a lot of the work of Intern Labor Rights has been educational in nature—getting the public to see the flaws in a system that embodies and promotes inequalities of opportunity.
The economic impact is significant in some fields where unpaid internships seriously undermine the health of the labor market, especially in what Glatt calls the "cultural production industries,” such as film, music, and journalism. He attributes that to the notion that "thinking labor" is somehow perceived not as "labor" because it is mental and not physical. The implications of unpaid internships being the only “in” in cultural production industries are worrisome—a narrowing in the voices of our future journalists, and thus, the viewpoints we hear. In a study conducted in the UK, Alan Milburn found that 54% of top journalists were privately educated and “the media had become one of the most socially exclusive of professions.”
Unpaid internships are rife in many branches of government and international governing organizations, including the EU, the UN, and others. These positions are coveted because of the prestige and access they might grant. As a commentary on just how stacked the deck is in favor of the employers, the Department Of Justice now has unpaid intern positions for "special assistant US attorneys." One can easily see why the kind of cache of exclusivity these internships permit and the hypercompetitive arena for landing one of them only serves to perpetuate entrenched social divides. While one could argue that non-profits really do need the help of interns to operate, the same cannot be said for the government or for the private sector.
So, how true are the assumptions of inequality? In a study conducted by Intern Bridge, women are much more likely to be engaged in unpaid internships than men, who prefer to participate in paid internships with for-profit companies. The “liberal arts industries” are much more likely to offer unpaid internships. And “high income students through their preferences, social networks, and status, enjoy more opportunities at the largest companies, are more likely to be paid, and have access to a limited number of opportunities in organizations their peers compete fiercely to enter.” Almost ¾ of interns report holding a second part-time job to support themselves while on internships.
While the challenges faced by unpaid interns are formidable, the movement to correct employers’ abuses is picking up tremendous momentum, both through legal filings and grassroots activism. The arts and labor working group of Occupy Wall Street demanded that the New York Foundation for the Arts stop advertising unpaid internships. Designer Alexander McQueen ignited a controversy for advertising a full-time, unpaid internship. And groups like The Fair Pay Campaign, Make Youth A Priority, and The Campaign for America’s Future are at the frontlines of this long overdue battle.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Crossfade Roulette--My Weekly Music Column

Crossfade Roulette

I Give It A Year--Movie Review

My I Give It A Year film review

Hey, look, a droll and properly cheeky romantic British comedy! Simon Baker, the scion to High Grant’s romantic lead throne—check! I Give It A Year, the new film by Borat writer Dan Mazer attempts to upend traditional rom-com plot structure by literally going about it backwards; instead of the ineluctable march to the altar, we have our characters walk away from it, literally and metaphorically. The question is whether this premise reversal alone helps the film escape well-trodden, trite territory. I gave it an hour and thirty minutes.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations

My article for Voice Of Russia

The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations
The Buzz Over The Dire Decline In Bee Populations

Worldwide, bee populations are suffering significant decline and rather than a single cause, it seems to be the result of multiple factors working in concert. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report in 2012 citing a “complex set of stressors and pathogens," and calling for "multi-factorial approaches to studying causes of colony losses," yet stopped short of making any policy recommendations. The EPA has, sadly, been woefully lackadaiscal in taking steps to stem the problem. Perhaps that will change with the recent momentous suit filed by beekeepers and environmental groups against it for failing to protect bee populations.
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. domesticated hives did not survive this past winter, making it the worst loss to date. Far more than just giving us honey, bees are a crucial player in our food production; they are responsible for pollinating many flowering plants--by some estimates, almost one out of every three bites of food that we eat was produced with the help of these natural pollinators. Cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, watermelons, cucumber, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds are just a few of many of the delicious crops our six-legged worker friends toil on.

Domesticated bees are not the only ones being affected either—wild bee populations have decreased by an alarming 90% over the last 50 years. The ecological implications are nearly catastrophic; so are the resultant economic and food supply concerns. The World Conservation Union predicts that 20,000 flowering plant species will disappear in the next few decades as a result of bee losses.
Bee die-off is in part attributed to the appropriately-ominously-named phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive. Climate change, habitat destruction, pesticides, and disease all seem to have an influence on the occurrence of CCD and are factors that often interplay with each other--the worldwide bee population decline speaks to the multiplicity of causes not endemic to specific regions.
Climate change and habitat destruction are affecting ecosystems as a whole and bees in particular. Erratic weather patterns have an indelible effect on the schedule of flowering plants. Plants may blossom early, before honeybees can fly, or may not produce flowers at all, resulting in no pollen for the bees.
The impact of pesticides on bee depopulation has been widely examined by researchers. Jeff Pettis of USDA's Agricultural Research Service and his team found that a pesticide called imidacloprid is weakening the bees' immune systems and allowing infections to spread through hives. Another group of pesticides, extremely commonly-used worldwide, the neonicotinoids, chemically-related to nicotine, could harm bees by disrupting the navigational and learning abilities they use to find flowers and make their way back to the hive. The neonicotinoids have often been likened to "nerve agents" for the neuroactive effects they have on bees. In a landmark move, the European Union passed a measure last month to provisionally ban the use of neonicotinoids for the next 2 years. By contrast, the EPA continues to greenlight chemicals widely recognized even by the EPA itself as “highly toxic to bee health,” allowing the use of the pesticide sulfoxaflor manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company.
In addition to their neuroactive effects, pesticides also tie into another element in the explanatory chain--disease--by decreasing pathogen resistance. The blood-sucking parasite, the Varroa mite, is one of the most virulent pests of bee colonies. It is dangerous not only in its own right, but also in that exposes hives to other viruses too. Another suspect is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in the pollen of genetically modified corn, which German scientists found compromised bee immune systems. The bacterial disease European foulbrood is yet another pathogen.
Communities worldwide are astir about the danger of bee extinction and the buzz is certainly gaining in volume, with many states, including Oregon ,passing measures to ban the use of certain pesticides. Clearly, the battle against CCD will have to be waged on a multiplicity of fronts.