Exploited Interns, a Documentary Shows the Cracks But Not the Fixes

Eleonora Voltolina

Eleonora Voltolina

Scritto il 21 Gen 2020 in International

global intern coalition interns' rights internship unpaid is unfair

“Call Me Intern” is the story of Leo Davis Hyde, the kiwi guy who, back in the summer of 2015,  lived (or rather pretended to live) in a tent during an unpaid internship in Geneva. Produced by Collective Bievre and distributed by Berta Film, it could have been a good documentary... A decade ago.

Its main goal is to fully disclose the impact of unpaid internships on the lives of young people: how they are unfair and how they bolster exploitation in the labor market. Which is just... not enough.

stage lavoro internshipAs an advocate for interns’ rights, as an Ashoka Fellow elected a couple of years ago for this very battle against unpaid and unfair internships in Italy, should I blindly praise any portray – just because it is important to speak about the topic? Or at least keep quiet if I happen to disagree? Is this article some sort of unreasonable friendly fire? Honestly, I don't think so.

First of all, I'm not saying that Leo Davis Hyde and Nathalie Berger's documentary is crap. It is well done, especially considering the
videomakers' young age and most likely the lack of money.  It even won the Best New Zealand Documentary at Doc Edge 2019, the Doxa Film Festival's Nigel Moore Award for Youth Programming, and it was among the 159 documentary features submitted for the 2019 Oscar race (the short list was announced a few days ago, and Call Me Intern didn't make it).

I’m sorry to say that it misses the point, though.

The documentary aims to state that unpaid internships exist. That they’re a way for companies and institutions an Ngos to get qualified work for free. That unpaid interns struggle to make ends meet.

Did we need a documentary to discover it? Maybe fifteen, maybe even ten years ago, the answer would have been yes. Nowadays? No. Not anymore. In any developed country everyone and their mother have either been an intern, or had a family member experiencing it. It is no news anymore.

What we do need to tell now, what we need people to know, is what has been done in the last decade to fight for interns rights, to change the laws (and the culture) that allow unpaid internships, to empower interns themselves. What will be done in the next two, five, ten years.

Unfortunately, there’s none of that in this one hour-long documentary. Yes, in the last four (four) minutes the filmmakers show the “International Interns' Strike” proclaimed in 2015 by the “Global Intern Coalition”, a network of organizations aiming to improve workplace rights for interns worldwide, which this webmagazine – Repubblica degli Stagisti – is of course a member of. What they do not tell is what the members of the aforementioned Coalition are doing in their own countries, though.

There are at least two countries where unpaid internships have been forbidden by law in the last few years: France in 2009 and Italy between 2012 and 2014.
The legislative change did not fell out of thin air. It has been driven by organizations that  lead the battle
, prodding the policy makers, giving voice to the interns’ struggle.

In France it was Génération Précaire
, a movement run by volunteers (back in 2015, when we interviewed them, they were ten), with no hierarchy, no fundings, but nevertheless able to defend the rights of the over 800.000 internships happening in France every year.
Unpaid internships were allowed in France until Génération Précaire (also a member of the Coalition, of course) took care of it. Certain types of internships still can be unpaid – if shorter than a certain lenght, for instance. But the vast majority of French interns have now the right to receive around 550 euro per month – the exact amount changes periodically, accordingly to the Smic (the French minimum wage).

The second country where the struggle against unpaid interships is making good progress is Italy. We lead the battle – and by “we” I mean us, actually: Repubblica degli Stagisti – and we won. Unpaid internship are no longer legal, in Italy, unless they happen during education (yes, unfortunately also during university, but hey, we’re working on it). The minimum grant ranges from 300 to 800 euro per month, depending on the region.
This webmagazine you’re reading is the main reason of the change in Italy. An improvement for over 350.000 on the total of 500.000 interns (“stagisti”, in Italian) per year, due to our work. Our articles, proposals, our lobbying activity towards politicians, unions, policy makers.

Wasn’t this documentary a huge occasion to celebrate and honor the victories? Showing that it is possible, indeed, to fight and win against Sanson? The documentary shows nothing of this work.

One could say: oh Lord you’re pissed. Who gives a damn about two small, European, not even English-speaking countries? Well, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to keep in mind that France and Italy still are a part of the G8: the summit of the eight more powerful countries in the whole world. Maybe not forever, but as a matter of fact – yeah, France and Italy do matter.

Besides, it is highly interesting to  note that France and Italy achieved the goal – getting rid of unpaid internships – in totally different ways.  Génération Précaire did it by putting pression on the public through flashmobs and street demonstrations, with a quite aggressive communication strategy. Repubblica degli Stagisti did it by liaising with the willing stakeholders (institutions, political parties, unions, private companies) interested in improving the system of internship, with an inclusive strategy.
Strategy being in both cases the operative word.

The goal may be the same – overcome unfair internships all over the world – but in order to reach it, it is wise to choose the best strategy according to each country and their economic development as well as the labor market's peculiarities, the strength or weakness of trade unions, even tradition and work culture.

French and Italian interns have now the right to be paid fairly: both strategies, even if throughly different from one another, have paid off. There's no competition, no right or wrong way to do it: there's just the final outcome. In both cases, the results speak for themselves.

Where's the storytelling of the different strategies that can be put in place to win the battle against unpaid internships, in Call Me Intern?  Nowhere to be found.

But let’s say that the videomakers were not keen on Génération Précaire's or Repubblica degli Stagisti's work. Let’s say that they weren’t willing to give visibility to
individual initiatives. Which is kind of peculiar, because obviously any main change is driven by particular initiatives, by single individuals or organizations. But let’s agree over the fact that maybe it was the filmmakers' policy.

Why then not mentioning the European Quality Charter of Internships and Traineeships and its journey through the EU institutions – and show how a good and concrete proposal can be slowed, and progressively emptied by politics? It would have been relevant.

Instead, Leo Davis Hyde and Nathalie Berger choose to focus on two main stories of young(ish) people, both African-American, both dissatisfied with their internship experience. Even if the stories are different enough, and interesting enough, I must admit that I’m not totally comfortable with either of them.

If your mission is to let the whole world discover the unknown plague of unpaid internships, it would make more sense to choose half a dozen or so of “average interns” – the more diverse, the better.

The filmmakers choose instead to dramatize the storytelling by selecting a young man, Kyle Grant, who happens to: find out that the company of his dreams, Warner Music, has a shitty policy about internships' grants; knock his girlfriend up; get kicked out by his mother; and end in a homeless shelter in NY. All of this during the same unpaid internship, which eventually is terminated by his boss over a small matter.

Is this an honest depiction of the average life and problems of the average intern? Not really. In my opinion Grant's story is just too much. It could have been great if placed alongside a couple of more “regular” stories, but as the main story it just feels too dramatic. Too extreme.

Especially considering that after like ten minutes or so of going over his story, there’s barely a minute to tell the happy ending – the fact that Kyle’s been part of a class action of interns against Warner Music, which ended up in a four-million-dollar agreement. So the most important part of his story, the part that actually explains why the documentary followed him and not some other exploited intern, is just overlooked.

As for the other story, Marisa Adam's, as a woman and a feminist I have the utmost respect for what Adam says about experiencing sexual harassment during her internship.

I feel quite ill at ease, though, for the documentary implies that female interns are more likely to be molested because they’re “just” interns and have no rights. This is quite inaccurate for at least two reasons. For one thing, there’s no evidence that interns would be sexually assaulted more frequently than regular employees in the workplace. Moreover, there are laws protecting people – men, women and everyone in between – from being sexually harassed everywhere (in the workplace, at home, in the streets) and the validity of these laws does not expire just because one’s an intern. Even if some US judge once ruled that unpaid interns don't have the status of employees and therefore can't bring sexual harassment claims, there's of course other ways to defend ourselves on the legal side, in the United States as well as everywhere else.

So, again: Marisa Adam's story hardly tells something about “internshipping”. Maybe it tells something about expectations, and broken trust, and sensibility, and even new beginnings. But it is not a story able to represent the vast majority of interns.

As for the other voices – the “experts”–
they certainly know what they're talking about, but... no one among them did anything to fix the problem. To improve the quality of internships. There are no changemakers in Call Me Intern.

There could be – I'm quite sure there must be, actually – other people around the world who did things to tackle the problem, to improve the life of the millions of young (and even not so young) people engaged in internships every year. Other than Génération Précaire in France, other than us of Repubblica degli Stagisti in Italy.

I would have been glad to discover them in this documentary. I didn't have the chance – there is none. (In fact, if any of you readers happen to know about improvements in internships' laws, or any other achievement related to the topic of internship anywhere in the world, please let us know: we would be very interested in cover it on our webmagazine).

“Call Me Intern” is not a bad documentary. Yet, it could have been so much more. And, PS: internships at the United Nations still are unpaid.

Eleonora Voltolina