The past year has been rife concerning the internship debate. In the media, as well as other professions, it is now a necessary step to get into the industry. However, that does not make it legal; the law states that workers must be paid the minimum wage unless they are “volunteering” for a charitable organisation or are shadowing a staff member on work experience. Whilst, there was much to-ing and fro-ing from MP’s, funnily enough it was the tax man who has been the first to take action.
More than 100 prominent fashion houses are being investigated by HMRC concerning the payment of their interns. Fashion houses including, Stella McCartney who has been notorious for using unpaid interns, Burberry, Mulberry and Nicole Fahri have all been sent warning letters stating they must pay their interns the minimum wage or risk prosecution.
Personally I think it is ironic that the government is only starting to take action, not because of young people’s human rights or welfare, but because they have realised that whilst these large companies are getting workers for scot free- they are missing out on their all important tax.
However, it is a step in the right direction. Stella McCartney has been criticised in the past for using unpaid interns but is now from the New Year only offering paid placements. Likewise, Mulberry states it only uses unpaid interns for short time placements (up to four weeks) and covers travel and lunch expenses, whilst longer term interns and those on placement years are paid.
The fashion industry is an aspirational and tough industry where competition is strife for jobs. Young aspiring fashionista interns apparently work long hours often into the night sewing, steaming, mailing – anything to break into their dream industry.
Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the careers website Graduate fog and campaigner for paid internships says this is not exactly breaking news as fashion houses have been exploiting young workers for years.
‘For too long, fashion houses have recruited brazenly for what are clearly illegal roles that take advantage of those who do them and exclude those who can’t afford to do them. These interns are not just work shadowing, making the tea and sorting the post. They are effectively doing full-time jobs, just without any pay.
‘Most of the time they do not lead to paid, permanent jobs – only to another unpaid internship. Many fashion companies are known to have a revolving door system, where one unpaid intern is simply replaced with another at the end of their placement.’
Sadly, this is a stark reality for many budding fashion designers. Like I said beforehand, the industry is so competitive that interning for free is one of the few options to bag that dream job. Who works the hardest, read stay the latest and works their butt off for no pay may just get noticed and be rewarded with a paid internship – or gasp a job! But I imagine, like in journalism, it is more about luck, contacts within the industry and of course having the money to actually undertake these unpaid internships that really makes the difference between getting a job, and not.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whom supported the HMRC crackdown, hit the nail on the head when he stated, “internships should provide valuable opportunities in opening up doors for the future. They should be available to everyone, not just those who can afford to work for nothing”.
That I feel is a massive part of the debate. Only those who can afford to undertake these unpaid internships will be able to do them, resulting in an elitist and overall middle class industry. Internships will create a divide, if there isn’t one already, where only the middle classes and the affluent will be able to be part of these creative industries.
However, the government or the industries themselves must try to provide an alternative route to jobs within the media and the arts. As there is no point abolishing unpaid internships if there is no alternative. An argument being that without unpaid internships it will make it even harder for graduates to break into their chosen career.
Apprenticeships, minimum wage placements, short-term work experience (up to four weeks with expenses covered) could be alternatives. After all these are competitive industries that do require experience and if they do make unpaid internships illegal will graduates be able to get a job?
It’s worth taking into consideration this side of the argument. I always find the internship debate a tricky one, one that is set to go on and on. Young people cannot be working late in the wee hours slaving away for no pennies with only a slim chance of getting a job at the end of it. But then, I suppose like many of us aspiring journalists a slim chance of a job is better than no chance of a job so we will carry on working for free until we get the results.
So what do you think about the current situation? Do you think unpaid internships should be abolished? Or do you think scrapping internships could see the current employment situation in fact worsen?
Personally, I think there needs to be regulation, like many things in this country employers need to be watched to examine how they are treating their interns, and if they are indeed fulfilling a job like role they should be paid the minimum wage…
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