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You don't have to be an unpaid intern

By Alex Footman, Special to CNN
June 18, 2013 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Unpaid internships in film and publishing may have once been educational, Alex Footman says, but they often aren't anymore.
Unpaid internships in film and publishing may have once been educational, Alex Footman says, but they often aren't anymore.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Footman says he and old co-worker sued a studio over experience as unpaid interns
  • Footman: Employers who violate labor laws profit unfairly from getting free labor
  • He says contrary to what many say, unpaid internships are not a fact of life to get used to
  • Footman: It is vital to know your rights and to speak out when they are stepped on

Editor's note: Alex Footman lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he makes documentaries about topics such as women's rights and the Afghan soccer league. His directorial debut, "Weep Like the Waterwheel," premiered at film festivals in 2011. He was a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

(CNN) -- In the fall of 2011, I was living at home in a suburb of Washington, freelancing as a grip on local productions ranging from news to corporate videos. It had been two years since I began a six-month internship in the Midtown Manhattan production office of "Black Swan," the only feature film I have worked on to date, when I received a call from my old co-worker Eric Glatt.

At first, I was surprised to hear from him. We had hit it off as fellow interns from the start. We went to the same university and shared a common interest in documentary film. But I left New York in 2010 and hadn't had much contact with Eric since.

When he brought up "Black Swan," my surprise turned to disbelief. He said he thought we had grounds to file a lawsuit against the movie studio Fox Searchlight based on our experiences as interns.

Eric was serious. He had researched the issue, found a law firm and was looking for other interns to join him as co-plaintiffs.

Alex Footman
Alex Footman

The basis for the lawsuit was that the studio had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act's six-point guidelines for internships by using us to do the work of paid employees, failing to provide a structured learning element to the internship and basically profiting from free labor. Internships are actually meant to provide benefit to the intern and no benefit to the employer, and indeed, even hinder the employer if it benefits the training of the intern.

After our conversation, I looked up the Department of Labor's guidelines for internships and saw for myself how clearly the law favored us. By the end of the day, I decided to join Eric as a co-plaintiff.

The decision came easy. That no other interns had filed a similar lawsuit before did not discourage us. But if it hadn't been for Eric, I might never have taken any actions myself.

If there is one thing I have learned from my experiences dealing with Fox Searchlight, it is that you cannot take for granted that your employer has your best interests at heart, and it is vital to know your rights and to speak out when they are stepped on.

We tried to get other interns to join us in the lawsuit, but we were on our own. Were they concerned that doing so would be career suicide in the film industry? Did they disagree and see themselves as beneficiaries of their experiences? Or did they think it was just a waste of time? To this day, I don't have an answer since our fellow interns haven't talked to us about it. I would be curious to hear their thoughts though.

After we filed the lawsuit, I was caught off guard by all the hate mail and angry comments. I did not expect the case to stir up such strong emotions, but it obviously touched a nerve. We were mocked by the public and the media alike.

There was a wide range of negative responses. The silly: "They should be happy they got to work with stars like Natalie Portman" -- as though we shared a dressing room and took notes on acting while on the job. The vindictive: "I hope these guys never find work in this industry again."

But what frustrated me the most was that the criticism all boiled down to one point: Unpaid internships are a fact of life that we should never question.

But we proved the critics wrong. A District Court in the Southern District of New York ruled that Eric and I were indeed employees misclassified as interns. Part of our suit was also certified as a class action, acknowledging that this has affected a great number of people and hopefully sending a warning to employers who are in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Unpaid internship in industries such as film and publishing may once have been truly educational experiences, but it has become obvious to me through conversations with others who have done internships -- and there are many of us -- that it is by and large no longer true.

I believe that there are meaningful and beneficial internships out there. We never argued against their existence -- a point that every detractor seems to miss. The court ruling is a message to employers either to provide a proper unpaid internship within the guidelines or, if they are unable or unwilling to do so, to hire employees to carry out the work they need done.

Today, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Herat, Afghanistan, after a 10-day shoot for a documentary about Afghanistan's soccer champions, Toofan Harirod FC. Since my internship with "Black Swan," I've worked for outstanding filmmakers who have taught and encouraged me on the job. They believe in developing the next generation of storytellers while compensating us for our time and work. Without them, I would never have made it this far as a filmmaker.

Since the first wave of negative feedback in 2011, the positive coverage and comments on our side have far outnumbered the detractors. Whether that will amount to sweeping changes in the industries is in the hands of the employers and in agencies responsible for enforcing labor law.

Eric and I have shown that unpaid interns can stand up for themselves. Now we want to see more laws to protect those who work for free. Better yet, we want to see more self-regulation from employers so that the burden of enforcement won't have to weigh down on the people with the least bargaining power.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Footman.

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