Unpaid Internships: Slave Labour or the Labour of Love?

Unpaid internships are generally the bane of a student’s existence yet they are completely necessary for post-graduation employment. Fashion, in particular, is an industry where internships are valued as high as a Hermes Birkin is priced (read: very high). They are of prime importance in regards to gaining necessary, relevant experience and making connections that can serve you well after graduation. Internships increase chances of employment, allow you to dabble in different sections of the industry before you settle on an exact career path and also look really good on your CV/resume.

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada

With all the positives just mentioned, you’re probably wondering why they are such an issue?
The biggest one is the fact that they are unpaid. This means working long hours, doing many tough, and often menial, tasks all for free. Moreover, in the current job market – a pretty sad state of affairs – many interns have already graduated and are interning in the hope of gaining employment at the end of it. Internships can be like a full-time job, 40 hours or more a week, yet without the nice pay packet at the end. Furthermore, interns can be playing a vital role to the success of the business yet getting zero compensation besides the name of the company on their work history and occasionally their travel expenses paid. This is the demoralising part. And to combat this what has been done? Well there are now many regulations in place. The US Department of Labour has released guidelines (6 of them) which aims to ensure that the person who benefits from the internship is the intern themselves – not the multi-billion dollar/pound/whatever damn currency organisations. The guidelines are:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to
    training which would be given in an educational environment
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern;
    and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the

The document is linked here.

So why is it, with all these rules in place, do unpaid internships continue to remain the norm in the fashion industry? You know, the ones that don’t stick completely to these rules? Simply because they are necessary. Not for the businesses really, but for the mass of fashion graduates and other hopefuls who are aiming to pave their way in the business, they are crucial. For as long as we are willing to work for free, the mass of unpaid internships will continue. Supply and demand in the most basic sense. Fashion is an extremely competitive industry and if doing that one extra internship with a big name company can help your application for the job of your dreams stand out over others, wouldn’t you do it?

The real life "Devil", Anna Wintour (on the right) and Grace Coddington

The real life “Devil”, Anna Wintour (on the right) and Grace Coddington

Internships can be thought of as a sort of survival game. A way to weed out the weak and hangers-on who will never actually make it in the fashion industry. They help separate the people who are starry-eyed and slightly deluded to the reality of fashion from the ones who are serious. Fashion is a business and also sort of like a jungle, but less barbaric. The rivalrly is extremely high and only those who can stick it out will survive. Think of yourself as a tree in the rainforest competing for light, aiming to reach higher than your peers in order to survive. That is similar to fashion. The resources are limited. In fashion I mean the jobs and in my slightly unnecessary rainforest analogy, the space to reach the sunlight. Unpaid internships are a way to show your commitment and dedication whilst also making contacts and forming relationships with people who may help you in the future, helping your tree to grow so to speak. You never know who you will cross paths with and fashion is said to be a very intertwining (pardon the pun), close-knit industry where everyone knows everyone – or at least those who are important.

In regards to everyone knowing everyone, everyone also knows that those who are in the positions of power now have likely all been in the position you are in now (ie. right at the bottom of the ladder, working for free). Nobody gets everything handed to them, unless nepotism levels are particularly high that day. So whilst it may feel demotivating working for free and you probably think you’re slightly overqualified, the reality of it is that everyone starts on the lowest rung of the ladder and has to fight their way up – hopefully not literally. Internships are almost a rite of passage. And you never know, if you perform extremely well on an internship and really stand out to your superiors, they will remember you and maybe even consider you for employment in the future. Even if they don’t employ you, they may recommend you if they know of jobs available that you may be suitable for.

Another from the Devil Wears Prada, in the fashion closet, a place where many interns at magazines will spend their days

Another from the Devil Wears Prada, in the fashion closet, a place where many interns at magazines will spend their days

Recommendation from others in the industry may be the only way of getting a job at some big companies nowadays as a result of the crackdowns on unpaid internships which have been likened, ridiculously and slightly insensitivity, to slave labour. Making a rapid, sweeping generalisation here: Everyone dreams of working at Vogue. If you love fashion, the thought has probably crossed your mind at least once or twice. For the lucky some, interning here was a reality. They got to live and breathe fashion and brush shoulders with icons like Anna Wintour. Although it probably wasn’t very glamorous but we all know not to expect that anyway. However, some can’t take the heat and compared it to a real-life  The Devil Wears Prada experience and ruined it for everyone. If you plan to intern at Vogue, or even any other Conde Nast title (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, W, WWD), think again. Unless you are lucky enough to have some close personal connection who can find a way to jump through flaming hoops and sneak you through the door, it is not going to happen. Conde Nast has discontinued its internship programme after former interns at W and The New Yorker sued in regard to unpaid labour laws.

Were these former interns right for speaking up? I’d say no. Firstly, they have completely tarnished their own names and therefore credibility in the industry. I can’t see how anybody would want to hire them after this, mainly because unpaid internships are expected and pretty much a requirement for working in fashion. To find yourself above this makes you look most unprofessional and unwilling to work hard. Secondly, as a result of their complaining, the chances and opportunities of up-and-coming talent have been slashed. Yes, everyone knows it is shitty having to work for free but that is just the way it is. Grow up and get down to business.

Am I being harsh? Perhaps. But you need to be tough in business. Yes, it is ridiculous working for free, especially because the cities in which the most fashion opportunities exist are among some of the most expensive to live in – in the entire world. According to the Telegraph, Paris is the 8th most expensive, New York the 5th and London the most expensive as of 2014 to reside. However, if you want to work in fashion, you’re generally not in it for the money, more for the love of it. You’re used to having little money to spend (or splurge). You realise that until you are about 35 you’re likely to make so little that you question why you’re still doing it. Throughout college (when most people are doing internships), it is vital to work on your time management skills so you can afford to do unpaid work. Work in a coffee shop, a restaurant, a bar – wherever you can to make the ends meet. Work in fashion retail at the weekend to gain some relevant experience too. Put 100% effort in for your four years of college and do it until you think you can’t do it any longer. Push yourself to breaking point and if you still want it, fashion is the industry for you. If you don’t care any longer, if you don’t have a burning passion, if you don’t spend your spare time thinking of something else you need to do in order to succeed, save yourself some time and money; just go home.


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