Being young, impressionable, eager to please, and impatient while attempting to climb the corporate fashion ladder, can lead to being overworked to the point of exhaustion. But starting at the bottom can only get better — that's if you know your rights before your first day.
On August 11, a class-action lawsuit was filed at the Manhattan Supreme Court against Dualstar Entertainment Group — the licensing and manufacturing company of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — by roughly 40 past and present interns. The lawsuit claims that interns were subjected to long-hour work days and tedious tasks. A rep for the Olsen twins said that they will “vigorously defend itself against plaintiff's claims” and that they are “confident that once the true facts of this case are revealed, the lawsuit will be dismissed in its entirety.”
Internship programs in the fashion industry have gotten a lot of heat in the past couple of years, mainly because interns are starting to realize that they are being treated unfairly and unlawfully. What was seen as normal in the past, isn’t okay by labor standards today.
One of the most prominent class-action lawsuits that spearheaded an overhaul of internship programs came in 2014 when a judge ruled that Condé Nast had to pay $5.8 million to about 7,500 interns who said the magazine publisher failed to pay them minimum wage. Long before the ruling, Condé Nast defended its internship program and said they followed proper standards. However, they eventually shut it down. Other companies sued for such improprieties include Fox Searchlight Pictures, Gawker Media, NBC Universal, Hearst, and others.
Because a bulk of the most coveted fashion internships are in New York City, there’s a law firm that dedicates itself to representing interns that may be entitled to compensation for their work. Intern Labor Rights is another great resource that aims to raise awareness to the exploitation of unpaid laborers.
However, before you start dreaming about your day in "People’s Court," the first thing you should read before you begin an internship is the guidelines under the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, which determines what defines a lawful and educational internship that does not require compensation.
The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- 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;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Number 4 is probably the most crucial, because if you’re doing work, in which an employer is relying on you to finish in a timely manner (as in, things could fall apart if they’re not done) that could be a major red flag. Yes, an employer should count on you but the real burden should lie on their employees, not the interns.
Some interns are asked to make coffee runs, but overall your internship should be educational, and, ideally, rewarding. Fashion translation: Filing beauty samples in the closet and helping out the stylist on photo shoots is good experience, but being a part-time messenger and food delivery service is not. The internship shouldn’t be so stressful that it affects your health.
It’s also important to never expect a job offer once the program is completed. Not only do the guidelines state this, but whether you have one internship or seven, this type of experience is vital to the development of your career. Your hard work will shine through, even if your potential employer refuses to acknowledge it, and you'll get ahead in the end.