It looks like the action taken by former interns at Conde Nast, home of Vogue, WWD and Glamour magazines, has finally paid off. The publishing giant has announced that it will be cancelling its US internship programme come 2014. The news comes after a slew of lawsuits in the fashion world by interns claiming that they had not been paid for the work that they did. Two suits have been filed against Conde Nast in the US, one by Lauren Ballinger who worked at W magazine and another by Matthew Leib who worked at the New Yorker. Both claim that they were paid less than one pound an hour. Leib and Ballinger want their lawsuit to go forward as a class-action.
While some argue that the end of the internship is a bad thing for aspiring journalists and fashion editors, we disagree. The work that interns previously carried out will still need to be done. All that will change is that Conde Nast will now need to hire and pay employees to do this work instead of exploiting the vulnerability of interns. Sure, there may be more competition in getting one of these coveted paid positions, but at least there will be an even playing field. Those with talent, ambition and drive who cannot afford to work for free because of their financial circumstances, will not be excluded.
The fashion world is rife with unpaid internships. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to state that fashion week simply could not happen without their work and dedication. In most other industries, interns would be paid, yet the fashion industry languishes far behind when it comes to worker’s rights. Lured by a glamorous image portrayed in the media, many young hopefuls are so desperate to break into the industry that they’ll do whatever it takes to get there. And why would the fashion industry pay when they can so easily get work for free? The level of demand was highlighted in October 2012 when a number of fashion houses including, Oscar de la Renta, Balenciaga, and Valentino, auctioned off month long internships, with all proceeds going to charity. Each position reportedly took in bids of more than $10,000 each.
But what about here in the UK? Well, yes, most unpaid internships ARE illegal. If you are simply shadowing an employee, watching, observing and learning, this is considered work experience and you probably will not be entitled to pay. However, under employment law, people who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are “workers” and are entitled to the minimum wage. This means that even if your internship just requires you to turn up at a certain time and do some menial tasks, you are entitled to payment. Many interns in the fashion industry that we’ve spoken to regularly work 12 hour days, five days a week, even managing other members of staff and still do not get paid. In 2011, HMRC (the body responsible for enforcing minimum wage) sent letters to 102 fashion houses, warning them that they are under scrutiny and urging them to pay their interns the minimum wage or face penalties. The Stella McCartney fashion house subsequently changed its internship policy and now only offers paid placements. Vogue magazine in the also pays its interns. Unfortunately, many other fashion companies do not have similar policies and we must continue to fight against this practice!