Style: The Devil Pays Nada

This week  the capital’s design talent will be showing why London is one of the fashion capitals of the world, as established labels like Burberry and Vivienne Westwood show their latest collections alongside younger designers like Mary Katrantzou, J JS Lee and Christopher Kane. However this year the bloggers, buyers and fashonistas will find themselves joined by a group of self-styed ‘fashion victims’ who will be representing an uncomfortably darker side of fashion by protesting against the unpaid internships that are rife within the industry.

Back in December, the HMRC wrote to all 102 fashion houses taking part in Fashion Week to warn them about the non-payment of the minimum wage to all workers over the age of 21. It is actually illegal to employ an intern for over a month without paying them minimum wage. Those working for less than a month are entitled to expenses for lunch and travel. Many fashion companies, including Stella McCartney and Mulberry, do already comply with the rules, which is great news, but a quick look on fashion job sites show that these companies are the exception, not the rule.

For fashion students, internships have been an essential way to get a bit of real work experience and put a high profile name on their CV. But at some point in the last few years, these roles have been becoming longer and demanding higher skill levels. Many advertised internships want significant experience elsewhere in order to be considered. So you now need experience to get work experience? Also the job descriptions are getting ever longer and more challenging. I currently work as a freelance copy writer, but I can’t tell you how many internship descriptions I have seen that make me wonder if even I would be able to handle the many responsibilities involved (and I get paid good money to do what I do!).

A quick survey among my fashion student contemporaries gives an ever more depressive insight. One of my friends was taken on as an intern at a major PR firm. After a difficult financial performance, they fired all junior staff and replaced about 15 people with interns. My friend basically had an assistant role and spent the whole day running after a high maintenance boss who was constantly yelling at her and expecting her to stay late to run around town doing errands. She stayed there 6 months before quitting, but others who had joined with her stayed over a year. So these young graduates were supporting themselves for over a year in London, working themselves ragged in really stressful roles for nothing but the privilege of putting it on their CV. When my friend left, her boss was so mad she refused to even say goodbye. So she could forget any chance of being recommended for a role inside or outside the company. There couldn’t be a stronger example of the attitude that, ‘you are lucky to be here, we are not lucky to have you.’ Interestingly enough, while reading an industry magazine at the time, she saw that that PR company was the number one performing in the country that year. That must be a bit of a sting to be worked so hard and told there is no money to pay you with when the company is experiencing record profits.

With the economy flat lining and youth unemployment the highest is years, it makes sense for the government to clamp down on these unfair and illegal internships. If every company paid minimum wage to young people in entry level positions, it would be a massive boost for the economy, not to mention boosting the fashion industry itself by helping more creative young people from diverse backgrounds who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do these internships.

So why are so many companies still using unpaid interns? The Times came under a Twitter attack this week after advertising for a nine month long unpaid fashion internship. For a company whose reputation is already being dragged through the mud, it was the last thing they needed, not to mention the hypocrisy on reporting on youth unemployment and unpaid internships while they are doing this. Their excuse is probably that they can’t afford to pay their interns (they are admittedly losing millions). But there is part of me that just feels this is a massive excuse. These big companies know that there are hoards of young graduates out there who will line up to get the experience of working with them. And if they get fed up with the long hours and hard work, well there are plenty who will take their place in a second. See ya!

Internships are not about investing in young people anymore, which they should be. Rather than training people up to play an important role in the future of the company, they are about filling junior roles with whoever will do them. There are so many PR companies, magazines and fashion houses who actually could not run without their interns but the caliber of unemployed young people is so high that they can find skilled people to fill these vital roles who are so desperate that they will do it for free. This begs the question, what about the unskilled ones? If internships are becoming so specialised, more and more young people who are yet to get any experience wont even be able to get one.

Ok, these are bad financial times but it doesn’t take that much to pay the minimum wage, and if you really need interns, you could just go to the effort of replacing them every month. I think that they do it for one simple reason: because they can. I hope that in the not-to-distant future, this will no longer be the case and I really hope the government fulfills their promise to clamp down on these internships because in the long run they are really not doing anyone any favours.

If you are a fashion student or graduate and are fed up of the practice of unpaid internships, please join us at the LFW protest. You can see the info here>

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