Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sartorial Statements: Behave Like A "Real" Company, Haute Couture - Pay Your Interns

 Photograph: Libby Page

Fashion companies are happy to be treated as corporate entities. They want to be listed in the stock markets of New York, London and Hong Kong. They want to issue debt and equity, or acquire new businesses and divest from old ones. They hire people with business degrees and backgrounds in finance and law to ensure that they make a solid profit every year.  Large fashion companies are no longer cottage craftspeople singlemindedly devoted to their trade. While fashion companies may celebrate the artists who serve as the brand's lead designers and "faces," the company itself is a corporate entity. But then these companies turn around and plea that they are "artistic establishments" and therefore do not have to pay their interns. According to these fashion companies, the mere "experience" of getting to work for them should be payment enough.

That is absolutely ridiculous. Fashion companies are not the only companies with prestigious histories that have hordes of young people lining up for internships. For example, Goldman Sachs is certainly prestigious enough to entice young people to work there for free. But most large corporations do pay their interns and often have a system in place to later hire at least some of them.  Goldman Sachs' summer internship program is paid and the bank gives out offers at the end of the summer. 

Obviously fashion companies are not alone in milking the economic crisis for as much free labor as possible - plenty of other companies in other industries are doing the same thing. And while Article 23 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that " Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and for his family an existence worthy of human dignity," the drafters of that document were undoubtedly thinking of people in much worse circumstances than recent graduates in their 20's working as unpaid laborers for up-and-coming fashion designers.

The fact that others around the world are in much worse circumstances, however, should not be used as an excuse to dismiss the struggles of the Millennium generation that has come of age in a world where paid jobs have been replaced by unpaid internships, particularly in the fashion and media industries. It is true that some millennials have parents who can lend a helping hand, or generous friends with a spare couch. But not all of them do. By turning the entry-level positions in fashion companies into positions that are unpaid, the fashion industry has effectively shut out those millennials who need a paycheck to live. They are left with little to no chance of ever getting their foot into the fashion industry's door.

Today's unpaid internships at fashion houses are relics of a bygone era where young people joined the houses as apprentices and were taught a particular skill over the course of several years. The old apprenticeship model bears little resemblance to the internships of today, where training is often severely lacking and the interns serve merely as unpaid labor. The group Intern Aware has been protesting at both New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week, trying to raise awareness of the fact that not only are these companies taking advantage of young people who have no other options for working in the fashion industry, but they may also be breaking employment laws in both the US and the UK.

Fashion companies cannot have it both ways. Law firms, financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, technology companies and most large corporations pay their interns at least minimum wage. Fashion companies cannot consider themselves corporate entities in the boardroom, concerned with compliance, revenue and respectability, but then use their artistic heritage as a ploy to garner free labor.  

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