As fashion week kicks off in London this Friday, we predict the spotlight won’t only be on the trends we’ll be wearing next summer but the thousands of interns building up their resumes with unpaid work at the world’s biggest fashion event. The last few years has seen an explosion in lawsuits taken by disgruntled former interns claiming backpay for the hours they toiled in fashion houses. Earlier this year Conde Nast settled a lawsuit brought by two former interns over claims that they had not been paid for the work that they did while interning for the publishing giant. The lawsuits, filed against Conde Nast in the US, were brought by Lauren Ballinger who worked at W magazine and Matthew Leib who worked at the New Yorker. Both claim that they were paid less than one pound an hour.
The fashion industry is notoriously competitive and difficult to break into. Lured by a glamorous image portrayed in TV shows like The Rachel Zoe Project and America’s Next Top Model, tens of thousands of hopefuls arrive in fashion capitals like New York and London every year looking for their break. As a result, 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. But 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.
However, the shift in perception highlighted by the growing number of lawsuits in the US has also been felt here in the UK and we’ve made quite lot of progress in the last few years. Intern Aware, the national campaign group for fair, paid internships, has been working tirelessly to fight unpaid internships across all industry sectors. They claim that unpaid internships are exploitative, exclusive and unfair. They state that by asking people to work without pay, employers exclude those with talent, ambition and drive who cannot afford to work for free. 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 and Net-A-Porter subsequently changed their internship policies and now only offer paid placements. More good news came last year when Minister Jo Swinson sent the details of 100 companies accused of illegally using unpaid interns to HM Revenue and Customs - the list included several fashion houses. HMRC subsequently forced nine companies to pay out almost £200,000 to unpaid interns in backpay.
But despite the mood change, we know there will still be thousands of interns working across our four fashion capitals over the next month for nothing. A quick glance at online jobs boards reveals a shocking number of advertisements for jobs with ‘expenses only’ paid. We’ve had emails from several interns confirming unpaid internships in fashion are still rife and the only route into the industry for anyone without the surname Jagger. But, are all unpaid internships illegal? For the most part, yes. 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.
If you are concerned that you are being exploited this fashion week, reach out to Intern Aware who will provide more guidance and information on how you can address the issue. They also provide guidance on recovering money for previously completed internships. www.internaware.org.
What do you think, are internships exploitation, or are they a right of passage?