By Summun Jafri
It looks like NYFW will be about more than simply the fashion this February. Occupy Wall Street will be protesting for the rights of unpaid interns throughout the duration of fashion week this year. The Intern Labour Rights Division of OWS is planning the demonstration and from February 8-10th their hope is to persuade and educate people about the technical illegality of most unpaid fashion internships.
Protest Organizer Peter Walsh has said, “The fashion industry is a for-profit industry — it’s not like they’re working not-for-profit arts organizations. They’re making billions of dollars and the fact that they’re asking their students to donate their labour to these businesses is really outrageous.” The general mentality behind most fashion internships is that it’s a great opportunity for the intern to get some work experience in the industry before seeking a real job. Although internships or co-op programs are generally offered in most industries today, it appears as though the fashion industry is one of the only ones that doesn’t compensate their interns in any way. It’s also said to be extremely competitive, so just to get a spot in one of these companies is considered a difficult task and is very honourable… perhaps that is why interns tend to settle for unpaid positions.
Over the last couple of years unpaid internships in the fashion industry have become a hot topic in the news, and not in a good way. First in 2012 Diana Wang, a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar, filed a lawsuit against their publisher Hearst. She was suing them for violating state and federal wage and hour laws by not paying her when she was doing the work of a paid employee.
The U.S. Department of Labour has created six criteria for what constitutes an internship. One of which is “The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an education environment.” Interns who are put in a position that does not meet the criteria should be paid at least minimum wage, plus any earned overtime.
Unfortunately in Canada the laws are not quite as straight forward when determining whether an internship is legal or not. However the Section 3.5 of the Employment Standards Act does state “an individual who performs work under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university” is legally considered an intern. Which makes sense, that if the internship is a component of the intern’s studies, and will give the intern credit, and then it is also beneficial to both parties. The ESA then goes on to give the definition of an employee under Canadian law, which in my opinion only complicates things more. However from what I have gathered, (and from what I can remember learning in my Employment Law class) an intern is someone who is paid "no remuneration," who agrees not to be paid, and who receives training that is ultimately for their own benefit.
Regardless of what the true definition of an intern is, let’s hope that sometime soon the fashion industry’s standards change, so that interns can be fairly compensated too. Although protests generally aren’t the best way to solve the problem, I’m hopeful that OWS will encourage at least one of the world’s top designers to start paying their interns. OWS is also planning demonstrations at London and Paris fashion weeks.