We're all well-versed in the predictable shenanigans of The Devil Wears Prada. It's really no secret that assistants in the fashion and media industry work long hours, slogging away well into the night to complete menial assignments dished out by their superiors with little or no thanks, and some of the time, little or no respect. But to be fair, that's their job. Heck, many would say they're lucky to have the job at all. They get paid to "start somewhere." Interns on the other hand, do not. And this, it seems, is where the lines get blurry and lawsuits get filed.
Last week, Xuedan Wang, a brave unpaid intern at Harper's Bazaar, filed a lawsuit (potentially on behalf of hundreds of unpaid interns, if it turns into a class action case) accusing the magazine's publisher, Hearst Corporation, of violating federal and state wage and hour laws by not paying her, even though she often worked full time (40-55 hours a week, allegedly).
The gutsy intern seems to have ruffled some feathers in the magazine world, sparking tough debate within the industry and bringing to light some of the moral issues surrounding one of the most glorified and glamorized industries where the internships are highly coveted, intensely competitive, and if you can land one at a major glossy, well lucky you — you've just hit internship jackpot in the magazine world.
While Hearst will likely fight the lawsuit with the unequivocal fact that their interns willingly sign up for three-month internships well aware they will only receive college credit for their troubles (Conde Nast interns, meanwhile, are paid a small stipend, roughly $7 per day, or a whopping 10 cents per hour if you want to get technical), at least it has got people talking, because there are some things that seriously need to be discussed.
Being part of the media has always held rank as one of those out-of-reach, glamorous careers that sits right next to "supermodel" on the what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up wish list of many girls, and breaking in is just plain tough. Read any comment board or forum on the website of any tween magazine and you'll see hundreds of wannabe fashion experts pleading for answers on how they can wind up working at Teen Vogue.
We can't get away from the fact that companies see previous experience as essential to entry-level paid positions. So sure, it makes sense that internships help to showcase bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college graduates as young professionals, enabling them to brand themselves and essentially look good on paper — which is pretty damn important, seeing as the highly prized, actual, real-life, paid job openings are so scarce.
That all seems relatively straightforward. The National Association of Colleges and Employers even reported that 38 percent of unpaid interns got genuine job offers after their internships in 2011. So internships help people get jobs? Cool. But really, that's beside the point. Companies have no money; students are desperate for work experience. It's awful formula that sees many employers take advantage of interns and their unwavering enthusiasm to gain access to the industry, violating Labor Department rules in the process.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a company may legally offer unpaid internships so long as they are educational — in other words, benefiting the intern rather than the employer. The department says that unpaid interns must not displace regular employees and that "the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded." But see, the bone I have to pick with the industry is that using interns to essentially do the jobs of paid workers without providing bona fide educational experience or compensation is only a small part of a much bigger problem.
Many interns tell their own Devily Prada stories of working 10-hour days on their feet, sometimes with no lunch break because Dior needs that dress back "right now!" and sometimes with bleeding blisters which are dismissed with a sharp look that says "just get on with it." They are ridiculed in front of other staff members, their naïve questions have in some cases even been tweeted about by their supposed-to-be-mentoring editors, who often speak to them with the kind of disdain and nastiness that would make any 18-year-old turn into a quivering mess.
Sure, there are many paid assistants in the fashion and media industry who have to deal with this on a daily basis (and this is a whole separate argument I will save for a later date), but for an intern carrying out tasks equivalent of an entry-level employee at a multi-million dollar company, subjected to the same humiliating behavior and horrible attitudes, unpaid; well I'm pretty sure that's called slave labor.
"If the interns weren't doing the work, then they would have to hire someone else to do it," said Elizabeth Wagoner, one of Wang's lawyers. A sign, she said, that labor laws are being broken.
Quite rightly, the lawsuit against Hearst states, "Employers' failure to compensate interns for their work, and the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot, and indirectly contributes to rising unemployment."
Many less affluent students say they can't afford to spend their summers at unpaid internships, and let's be honest, if mom and dad can't fork out for rent and pocket money it can be tough slog to scrape together enough cash outside of an unpaid 40-hour-a-week internship for a roof over your head, three meals a day, with enough spare time at the end of it to actually study. In other words, survive.
Sure, maybe working for free and waitressing to make ends meet teaches you a lesson, maybe having to hustle means you fare better in the end. It is, after all, a competitive industry. But if the whole point of offering an internship is to help those wanting to gain access to the industry, and those people can't afford to compete for that internship, then the equality is fundamentally eliminated, and in the end internships only end up fostering the few kids with enough money to get by.
Outlawing unpaid internships altogether won't work either. As an outsider, the one realistic way to get into the media industry, and to compete with others who grew up around the business, would be to offer your services for free. And in the end, if it was a requirement for all interns to be paid a minimum wage, we'll either end up with no internships at all, or the internships will go to those well connected kids (usually with a famous last name) who already have a list of editor friends to contact. Obviously, a world where there is opportunity for anyone to break into an industry if they want it badly enough is better for everyone.
So lest I suggest something entirely unthinkable such as, say, paying interns a fair wage, a change in attitude from the top right down to the assistants who manage the interns might be all it takes. Being an intern does mean doing the crappy jobs sometimes — it comes with the territory and it would be wrong to feel entitled to, say, start styling a whole fashion shoot when your editor has been working at it probably since you were born. But my god, in an open request to all editors and assistants out there, didn't your mothers ever tell you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Should the Department of Labor really have to regulate niceness and solid mentorship in the workplace for interns?
So listen up. Be nice to your intern; respect them, their efforts and all their hard work. Let them have lunch, the Dior dress can wait. And if it can't, god forbid, send it back yourself. If you don't have time to get your own coffee, of course it's ok to ask the intern to get it for you, but say "thank you" like you mean it; then perhaps they won't want to sue you afterwards.
Image by Jim Cooke, model photo via Shutterstock.