Unpaid Internships: Necessary Stepping Stone or Abuse of Student Labour?

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The fashion industry is notorious for unpaid internships – but is it all that bad? Returning from years in industry, Lydia Varney and Millie Cross discuss the pros and cons of working for free.

Millie- Sorry, did you say unpaid? No wage? The creative industry is notorious for its unpaid internships and although they sound horrific, they’re worth it. 

Having just completed my year in industry interning in different fashion companies in London on a wage of approximately £0, you could say I’ve become a bit of an expert in working for free. Pre year in industry me thought “I’m not interning for free!” but in the creative industry, this is almost unavoidable. Unpaid internships are worth it, trust me.

A stronger person: A year in industry or a summer internship help to make you a more confident and stronger person anyway, but when interning without a wage you definitely become even stronger. There’s something about working a 9-5 job Monday-Friday that makes you more resilient. 

Value of money: You may have a solid understanding of money and be a budget expert, but working for free will times this by 1000000. Because you’re not earning, you really learn what you do and don’t want to spend your money on and you will return to University a financial pro. That £17 night out that you don’t want to go to but “its unayyy”, no thanks, I’d rather spend the money how I want.  

Work has perks: One word; freebies! An unpaid internship often comes with a lot of generosity. During my year in industry, I practically acquired a new wardrobe as did my family and friends. Sample sales will be your best friend. Christmas is sorted and so are birthday presents for the year! Similarly, when you’re working for free, colleagues offer exciting opportunities such as cocktail parties and VIP styling sessions and they’re so willing to share their industry expertise with you. Companies are grateful for you in the same way that you are grateful to be there. 

Everyone will do it: In the creative industry nearly everyone will have to intern for free at some point, for some reason it’s just how the industry is. The best time to complete an unpaid internship is when you’re a student; you still have your student loan, you still have student discounts and you are still able to receive moral support from University. Don’t leave your unpaid interning for when you’re a graduate. 

Please don’t let the £0 wage of an internship put you off; they will help to shape you as a person and you will gain so much experience! Your CV will be bursting after you’ve interned, you will be more confident for interviews post University and you’ll have a huge network which could lead to job opportunities.

Lydia: When I told my friends I was taking on a paid internship for my year out, this news was met with a mixed response; from my fashion friends, there were congratulations, there were questions, and there was almost disbelief. From my friends outside the industry, the same disbelief was echoed when they found out I was on lower than living wage, and not even paid for my lunch-break. In what planet is the fashion industry so messed up that simply being paid the literal minimum is suddenly an ‘achievement’?

I get it, of course. You learn so much from your internship, and you can’t put a price on most of what you’ll experience. It’s worth doing it for free, I’ll be the first one to agree with that. It’s not about whether or not you’re in it for the money – you wouldn’t be in the fashion industry at all if that was the case. It’s the principle of being expected to work as hard as everybody else around you, sometimes harder, for absolutely nothing. It’s the fact that fashion companies decide not to pay you not because they can’t afford it, but because they know they simply don’t have to.

It’s a competitive industry and even unpaid internships take hours of portfolio preparation, CV toning and interview practice. It’s sad, however, that companies are using this fact to take advantage of those with the least amount of money; those often reliant on their parents to get them through the year. It’s completely elitist; if you don’t happen to live within Zone 2, or have parents with money to spare, the idea of working in London for free is not even close to being a realistic option. As long as internships remain, commonly, unpaid, the industry will lack the diversity and inclusion that creativity thrives on.

It’s not the case for everyone, but often the lack of pay can line up conveniently with a lack of care. I’ve heard all too many horror stories of unpaid interns being left to clean cupboards for hours on end, or sort fabric swatches from 2002. If the company isn’t paying for your time, they tragically don’t often value it properly. This isn’t the case always, but you know when you’re working for a wage they’ll make the hours count – and if they don’t, at least you’ve earnt money whilst you sit there rearranging the sample collection.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, and whilst the industry is notorious for unpaid internships, there’s an increasing amount of paid ones too. And, as long as you’re unpaid, you can come and go as you please – you really don’t owe them anything. You can rack up contacts, experience and free samples, all the while scrolling through fashionworkie looking for your next paid role. Seems appealing, of course, until you realise one round in London is equivalent to your weekly wages and you’re spending more money on your commute than you do on your social life.

image credit: independent.ie