Firms sign on to “Intern Bill of Rights” amid ongoing unpaid labor fights

A spate of lawsuits brought by interns in the fashion, entertainment and publishing industries has triggered new debate over whether interns should be paid and how companies should treat them. In the latest development, career site InternMatch has published an “Intern Bill of Rights” that was won the support of corporations like CBS, Viacom and Rosetta.

The proposal calls for employers to provide interns with a formal document that defines their positions and legal standing, and says they “deserve fair compensation for their work, usually in the form of wages and sometimes in the form of dedicated training.” (The full bill and a petition for firms to add their name is here).

According to InternMatch founder, Nathan Parcells, intern exploitation is partly the result of a decline in traditional career fairs where employers were encouraged to develop common employment standards. Today, there is little consensus over how to even define an internship — at a time when more young people regard them as a necessary first step into the workforce.

The past year has seen a series of class actions suits, involving companies like Fox and Hearst, in which interns claim they were exploited or used as free labor. According to Parcells, whose site attracts 500,000 students every month and employs four paid interns, this litigation (much of it unresolved) is leading companies to take an interest in the Bill of Rights.

But will this actually change anything? Tales of internship woes are a staple of the the New York Times “most e-mailed” articles list, and young people remain in the same position – desperate to enter the workforce in a lousy economy and reluctant to rock the boat. Even Bill DeBlasio, the progressive poised to be mayor of New York, doesn’t want to pay his graphic designers.

The best we can hope from the Intern Bill of Rights is for it to exert positive peer pressure on bigger companies to follow the lead of the Atlantic and others who are committed to paid and meaningful internships.

In the bigger picture, though, intern exploitation could be just one more symptom of a larger economic malaise in which policies favor the old at the expense of the young, and the wealthy to pocket all the gains in America’s fragile recovery.