I want to make a call to all fashion houses to pay their interns.
I run a start-up fashion label in South London, financed with my own money. An army of unpaid interns would make my life that much easier and would keep my costs that much lower. But I won't do it. Every one of my staff is paid. It is simply the right thing to do.
According to HMRC an internship is a form of work placement or work experience usually undertaken by university or school students. The legal status attached to an internship depends on whether the intern qualifies as a worker, volunteer or employee.
An intern denoted to all intents and purposes as a volunteer has no right to a minimum wage or other employee rights such as sick pay, holiday, etc. They may receive travel and subsistence expenses but only proper classification as a worker or employee would confer full employment rights.
In the fashion industry, graduate internships are a necessary pre-requisite to full-time employment. Graduates need to demonstrate practical and technical proficiency and working as an intern is often the only means to do this.
The problem they face is that most employers do not pay their graduate interns.
Most of my staff is made up of relatively recent graduates. Almost all have undertaken post university unpaid internships. Some have even worked without travel or subsistence expenses which implies they have effectively paid for the privilege of working for free.
I have been told of fashion houses that basically run on the labour of free interns.
Brands may argue that they are simply taking advantage of a convenient loophole or just doing what everyone else does. I would beg to differ.
To volunteer, and therefore qualify as an unpaid intern, the individual can't be held to conditions that would normally constitute a contract of employment, e.g. the requirement to work a set number of hours per week. However, fixed hours and day is what is usually expected of them. And yet still they are not awarded either employee status or any associated legal rights.
Aside from the fact that employers seem to be walking a rather precarious legal tightrope not paying people who work for you is just plain wrong.
Aside from any morality issue, the main problem with this is that fashion interns with limited financial means often have to walk away from their industry of choice, from the profession they have invested years of their lives learning and fine-tuning.
Access to debt will be almost impossible for practically all unemployed graduates, especially those already bearing the burden of student loans. Without wealthy and generous parents or patrons, which is the purview only of the privileged few, graduates would have no option but to look outside their chosen profession for paid work.
Fashion-related and other creative degrees are also not so easily transferable, certainly not in the same way as the more conventional arts or science subjects.
This leaves fashion graduates with even less choice.
And those graduates who do choose to take up an unpaid role are often one of many within a firm. I have heard of brands with nine unpaid interns per employee.
Interns need proper experience to build their CVs. They need to be developed. Having an overabundance of interns can often lead to in-fighting, simply because they're all looking to bag the best experience. And discord always leads to lower productivity.
Not paying interns engenders the creation of an elitist industry and risks the creation of discordant - and therefore less productive - teams. It can also result in the loss of talent.
The late Alexander McQueen is hailed as one of the UK's greatest ever fashion designers, renowned the world over. He was brought up in a council house in east London and started off as a paid apprentice.
It would be a travesty for a new mastery such as his to be lost to us all.