Are fashion internships a rip off?
“So how is jetlag?” asks one Russian model. “I don’t havaa jetlag”, replies her friend.
7am on the second day of Autumn/Winter 15 London Fashion Week; backstage is full of stressed-out people and noise. This show will be one of the highlights of the week: a big-names line-up for the FROW are eager to see what’s new from a designer whose clothes are worn by Kate Middleton, Samantha Cameron, Oscars’ hopefuls and Poppy Delevigne. Models have jetted in from all over the globe for the 15 minute show. They are exhausted and bossed around like they’re subnormal children but at least they get paid. Ditto for the make-up artists, photographers and stylists. But what is visible on the catwalk – the glorious clothes, sublime models, the looks – is achieved through months of invisible unpaid labour by a workforce of illegally-hired interns. Like bands of secret elves magicking up the fantasy, interns make fashion week. They do it for nothing. They are responsible for every aspect of the production of this multi-million pound marketing extravaganza. If they get their bus fares covered they are coining it.
Backstage an intern of four months at this brand, who works for free without even receiving expenses, asserts that she now knows everything about the brand. “I started working in production, moved to merchandising, then sales and accounts, then wholesale. I learnt everything about the label to the extent that I knew more than the paid employees whom I then began to train.” Is it a risk for such an up and coming designer to rely so heavily on an illegal workforce? “It’s an enormous risk”, she says, “but then again every fashion house is doing it and getting away with it.” As long as people are willing to work for nothing, the fashion industry will use free and illegal labour as much as they can, she thinks.
So far, so what? Everyone knows that the fashion industry supplements its £26 billion turnover with free labour, not only with interns but at every level of the production line – from sweat shop to cover shot, costs are externalised – no-one gets paid. Yet the profit margins are vast. 400% mark-ups on price for luxury items are common – this writer has seen the unit costs listed next to the sales prices at a major fashion house: a dress costing £35 to produce goes for over £1000 on Bond Street. The profits are there, but who gets it?
The law states that if an intern counts as a worker they must get minimum wage. Yet fashion has always ignored employment rights, finding loopholes like terming work as ‘shadowing’ or ‘work experience’ and so evading having to pay. Although the law may be finally catching up with the fashion world, it will only work if properly enforced. Despite Labour’s recent proposal to limit unpaid internships to four weeks, after which the employer is legally obliged to pay at least minimum wage, it is unlikely that fashion slave labour will slow down – especially when hundreds of fashionistas are queueing up to work for free – knowingly accepting that the devil pays nada.
‘Are fashion internships a rip off?’ by Erin O’Connor, 2015