The unpaid intern debate: What’s all the fuss about?

Are interns an easy fix for employers? Saving them money, valuable time and resources that could be zapped, advertising for a permanent staff member, whilst still getting the job done (arguably, to the same standard). Or is there still something to be gained from the unpaid internship?

The fashion industry has come into the firing line in recent years, and more notably with the documentation of the Olsen twin scandal that made headlines over the last few weeks. Unfortunately we’re not all equipped with the means to give months on ends work as a designer’s right hand man. We wish that our Sloane Square apartments, connections with Anna Wintour and unlimited MasterCards were not mere figments of our imagination too. But for the majority of us living, commuting and existing in London comes at a premium and one that the student loan cannot even begin to support. But in an age where the experience paradox is in full play; how do you get experience without experience, or more crucially how do you cut out the middle man and get paid for it? In the world of fashion, unpaid internships take centre stage and most young people are expected to have interned before even being considered for a full time position.
But this debate surrounding unpaid internships has not just surfaced in the media out of nowhere, Vivienne Westwood was placed in the firing line in 2013 for employing unpaid interns for three months at a time in a range of roles, with the equivalent responsibility to paid positions.

The Olsen Twins made the headlines in September when a group of 40 interns sued the dynamic duo for providing no payment or college credit for their contributions and for being worked to the bone. Shahista Lalani took the fashion moguls to court after claims she was, amongst many others, working 50 hour weeks without any recognition or salary. The Olsen twins have hit back denying such claims and are demanding Lalani drops the case and picks up their attorney fees.

As it stands the border between what makes you a fully-fledged intern rather than an employee is fairly hazy; and this needs to change. Technically when your status as a volunteer changes to that of a worker, you should be receiving payment of some form. This barrier is traversed when interns are completing roles that other workers receive a salary for, undertaking personal tasks for members of staff and working the same weekly hours as paid employees.

The debate seems never-ending. Do we have to accept that unpaid internships are a part of life? Or can these enthusiastic individuals, who often fulfil similar roles to permanent staff, seek the compensation they deserve?

The best way to assess what is to be gained from an unpaid placement is through asking questions and gaining full details on what your role will be and how your time will be spent, if expenses will be covered, if you will be able to gain a reference and if – the big IF – there is the capacity to gain a paid position upon completing the role. The purpose of an internship should be to aid learning and to provide the necessary means to become immersed in an industry role. Never be afraid to ask for details, but that tea making phenomenon that graces our screens is a reality I’m afraid, and all part of the interning protocol.

Emma McCormack

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