The Invisible Army of Workers
Internships in the fashion industry are in the heat of debate at the moment. Unpaid interns are suing designers and labels for free labor exploitation. The Row, the ready to wear fashion label which is owned by twins Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen has recently been sued by a former intern. She stated that she was performing the same work as some full-time employees. Over a period of four months, she received no compensation or college credit.
A former Harper’s Bazaar intern sued for a lack of overtime compensation, along with another lawsuit which was filed by two Condé Nast interns. A recent Business of Fashion article states that they claimed to have worked five days a week, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. “with tasks that included tracking the thousands of purses, shoes, and pieces of jewelry lent to the magazine for photo shoots, managing as many as eight other interns.”
There was no standard to differentiate the duties that are required to be classed as an intern or as an entry-level employee. Therefore, making it very difficult to know whether or not someone should legally be paid at least the minimum wage, and at the same time, very easy for exploitation to occur. A standard was put into place in June 2013, after the Condé Nast corporation was sued by unpaid interns of W magazine and The New Yorker. However, it is argued that the new standard favors the company over interns, by asserting that interns receive invaluable benefits from their time with a company, such as: networking, work experience, making contacts, and having the company on their resume. Former intern Olivia Haddow wrote a blog post about her terrible internship experience, titled it ‘Internships may be modern-day slavery – but don’t take that chance away from me’.
It seems interns gain no real job experience whilst with a company and are just being exploited to the point of exhaustion, because they desperately need the “experience”, or name on their resume. There are plenty of intern horror stories that attest to this concept. Many company employees do not have the time to mentor their interns, therefore interns in most cases end up fending for themselves; they do not learn what it takes to do the job from a qualified professional within a particular role. They leave without job knowledge or real experience.
Many interns do not see the unpaid internships as educational experiences, rather accepting that they will be running errands for a company; the weight of the name on their resume justifies free labor.
According to the Department of Labor, “giving unpaid interns work that doesn’t provide an educational experience is illegal.” The fashion organizations need to create these educational experiences for interns if they are unable to pay workers the federal minimum wage. These “educational experiences” do not include getting coffee and lunch for the office or picking up dry cleaning for the boss; tasks that a regular employee would not be assigned to do.
Having an internship on your resume is almost vital to securing a professional position in the fashion industry. Experience trumps education; real world internship experience is seen as more valuable to many employers than a degree from an accredited college. The problem is that in today’s generation, college graduates can be left with needing to work for years doing unpaid labor before they are able to get a paid job. Sarah-Rose Harrison, who interns at a fashion magazine in London, England said “Unless you’re incredibly lucky, being offered a role at the end of a placement is generally unheard of.” She has completed 13 internships, only three of which she was paid a minimum wage, and remains unable to get a job.
It’s a growing concern that unpaid internships are beginning to replace paid jobs. Expenses-only and unpaid ‘trial shifts’ have become the norm in sought-after industries such as fashion, and media where a revolving-door policy means that one intern is immediately replaced by the next, eliminating the need to ever offer anyone a salary-based position. A recent article for the Daily Mail states that ‘many small and medium-size fashion labels and PR firms admit privately that unpaid interns are so fundamental to their business model that having to pay them would risk them collapsing.”