Will unpaid internships ever end?
Published 19/03/2014 | 09:00
The issue of unpaid internships has never been more visible, particularly in the fashion industry.
In the last year, British fashion house Alexander McQueen has twice found itself in hot water because of them (read more about that here and here), while Condé Nast's US wing has shuttered its intern programme in the wake of two former interns bringing lawsuits against them for improper payment.
Meanwhile, Arcadia - the parent company of Topshop and Miss Selfridge - has been forced by HMRC to retrospectively pay former interns who worked for free in the company's press offices minimum wage, along with 199 other companies targeted by the non-ministerial department during a recent crackdown.
"There was one girl who made a complaint," Arcadia helmsman Sir Philip Green recently told the Evening Standard. "This girl has spoilt it for thousands of people. We had 300 or 400 kids interning, now it's about 30."
Though Green's former intern numbers may seem inflated, they are in fact more than likely accurate. A 2012 survey by YouGov found that the number of young people undertaking unpaid internships has soared in the last two decades - 20 per cent of 18-24 year olds, compared with just 2-3 per cent of those aged over 40.
While the fashion industry is by no means the only offender, it is one of the worst. Internships are an essential requirement on the CV of anyone hoping to get into fashion.
Walk into the offices of any fashion publication, fashion house or fashion PR agency and you'll find at least one intern who is currently giving their all in return for the cost of their daily lunch and a name to put on their CV. But, you'll also find now-employees who did the exact same thing and got a job out of it. This is the issue. For every complaint brought against a company by a former unpaid intern, you'll find countless young people more than willing to undertake unpaid work experience to get ahead, begging the question: will unpaid internships in the fashion industry ever really end?
The fight to rid the industry of them completely is in full flight - the aforementioned actions prove that - but this may be one trend that's too hard to shake.
As someone who has undertaken a grand total of 12 unpaid internships (alongside some paid) at various fashion companies (from publications to pr agencies and fashion houses), it's galling to look back and realise that I, like many of my colleagues, have in total spent almost a year of my life working for free. Especially now that I know the tasks I undertook and the daily regimen I was expected to follow at each company qualified me as a 'worker' in the eyes of the law, and therefore entitled me to receive minimum wage. At the same time, I'm acutely aware that every placement I completed helped me to gain the next and, eventually, my first job. I gained valuable, insightful experience from most of them - something that, you could say, money can't buy. From others, I learnt how to be nothing more than a glorified courier service.
As Gus Baker, co-director of Intern Aware, an organisation that campaigns for fair, paid internships, explains, there are two criteria that distinguish when you're entitled to be paid national minimum wage.
"Firstly, you need to have a contract, that contract can be written but it can be oral, so: 'You come in and work for me in exchange for which I'll consider you for a job and maybe give you a good reference,' may well count as a contract," he explains. "Secondly, you need to be personally providing services. That's a term the law uses, what it really means is doing something that's useful for someone else."
Surely that covers pretty much every internship offered in fashion - whether it's booking samples in and out, pattern cutting or indeed acting as a courier service? "Absolutely," says Baker, "that's the position that we find ourselves in and why our campaign exists."
"If most of the interns took [a] claim [to court], they'd win. But obviously, for reasons that everyone understands, no one wants to sully their name etc… So that's why we need the government to really do something about it, because otherwise it will carry on."
Baker does believe "the mood is changing" though, following the recent case brought against Alexander McQueen. "We expect and hope that it will have an effect on the industry because no one wants to go through being sued and having your name tarnished like that."
Shelly Asquith, president of The University of the Arts's student union, agrees that if we really want to see an end to what she calls "an endemic", we need to turn to the government.
"So long as people are willing and able to do unpaid internships, then employers are going to be exploiting them," she says. "I don't think we're going to win it alone, we're going to need some policy implementation."
Exploitation, believes Asquith, is the root of the issue: "Fashion is a massive market and it's exploitative, whether it's the people that are sourcing the fabrics, right through to the people that are cutting the patterns. It's exploitative at all levels."
Both Baker and Asquith agree that the industry's current stance on internships is, in fact, detrimental to it; Baker thinks the matter is actually "killing British fashion".
"What [fashion] thrives on is people from diverse backgrounds being able to bring diverse perspectives, new ideas to fashion businesses, to make and be able to grow and succeed," he says, "but because so many people are working for free, only those people from [financially supportive] backgrounds are able to get those jobs in fashion, which means that the sector's less diverse, less interesting and less challenging than it possibly could be."
But wouldn't a tougher governmental stance and therefore the abolition of unpaid placements mean, as Sir Philip Green pointed out, that far fewer people will be able to gain necessary experience?
"When he says it's ruined it for everyone, it's ruined it for a certain type of person," says Asquith.
"I think, in the balance of it, it will have a positive effect," she continues, "because of the type of people that will now be able to access those internships - even though there's fewer of them, the pool will be bigger because [fashion companies] will be able to select from young people that weren't able to do it for free - people from poorer backgrounds, or people from outside of London. They're going to get better talent and it means the industry isn't shut off to the privileged people."
But are action groups like Intern Aware fighting a losing battle? Unpaid internships seem ingrained within the fabric of the industry - you only have to look at websites like this to realise that they are still everywhere, and that they are instrumental to the running of many fashion companies. Asquith even admits that despite The University of the Arts's policy that it will only advertise paid placements to its students, teaching staff don't always adhere to it.
"There are obviously targets that course leaders have to meet in terms of getting students experience in the industry, meeting employability targets, so they'll be encouraging students to do the internships that aren't paid," she reveals.
What progress can really be made if even those supposed to be guiding students are encouraging unpaid placements? And even if the government crackdown hardens and they do disappear, could they not just be dressed up as 'volunteer' positions?
"With a volunteer, the relationship is different," explains Baker. "They can go 'I want to do this, but I'm not really up for this, I'm giving my time', in the same way that if you're volunteering at an Oxfam shop you might say 'I can do Sunday, but Monday I'm not up for it.'"
It's hard to imagine many companies willing to take this approach - the majority of unpaid fashion interns fulfil tasks that are necessary, and indeed often crucial to the day-to-day running of a company so a strict routine, like that of an official employee, is essential.
So, unless companies are forced to remove their unpaid programmes and replace them with formalised, minimum-wage paying roles, surely there is every possibility that unpaid internships will simply continue under the radar, driven by the multitude of people willing and able to get their foot in the door for free?