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The fashion industry's long reliance on unpaid interns is under greater scrutiny now than ever. This easy source of free labor has been the subject of litigation in the U.S., and is proving controversial in the U.K. as well.
Alexander McQueen has had to apologize and withdraw an advertised position for an unpaid knitwear intern. The company had placed an advertisement at various London fashion colleges seeking a student to work nine-and-a-half-hour days, five days a week — 47.5 hours per week, more than a full-time job — for up to 11 months, in exchange for nothing more than a travel pass and £60 worth of monthly lunch vouchers. This intern was to perform tasks including "knitting on a domestic machine and making knitted samples, as well as research, CAD, presentation and organising of the collection." Pretty substantial work, in other words. The unusual length of the internship, the long hours, and the overall stinginess of the arrangement quickly drew controversy.
The internship description came to the attention of the president of the University of the Arts London Student Union. She was not amused by the specter of a for-profit business running on unpaid student labor, and fired off an angry response.
Shelly Asquith, the student union president, told the Telegraph:
"I was particular sorry to see unpaid interns being used at McQueen as Alexander himself he was an alumnus of our university, and in his will donated to a bursury scheme at Central Saint Martins (one our our colleges) for poor students to access.
"His ethos seemed so removed from the current practise of non-payment and exploitation, and given his background it seems unlikely he'd have ever have been able to afford to do an unpaid internship. Many talented students may have trouble succeeding in art and design because they just aren't able to get the initial experience, because so many placements don't pay a wage."
Asquith also pointed out that a blazer from the current McQueen collection retails for £8,930, or about one year's tuition at a top London fashion college. "No amount of luxury is worth the slaving away of an unpaid worker," Asquith wrote in her letter to the brand. "That students are spending months creating these pieces of clothing and not seeing any return is downright disgraceful and the label should be ashamed."
Alexander McQueen has apologized, and says the internship ad was placed "in error." The company says it only takes unpaid interns when the interns are students who are required by their colleges to complete an internship in order to graduate. But it doesn't seem like the company is as much a stranger to unpaid labor as it would like us to think: in the original internship ad, the brand said finding a new unpaid knitwear intern was "urgent," because the previous intern had left unexpectedly.
Asquith's full letter is below:
Dear McQueen, I am writing to you with concern regarding the unpaid work placement you recently advertised for unpaid student workers in your knitwear department.
As if studying for a degree in arts and design wasn't a financial burden enough, your email requests students to work for free for up to 11 months in your studio, and all they will receive in return is a meal voucher.
For anyone like myself – with a household income far below the level of debt I rack up each year – it is a daunting prospect to be graduating at a time of mass unemployment and limited investment in the arts. Besides the tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt students are ordinarily graduating with, any creative subject requires a large amount of investment. Students at my college - Central Saint Martins - spend up to thousands of pounds on their final collections and material costs throughout the academic year. Many of them have to work part time to fund their studies. But it is now the very commonplace unpaid internship that has become the latest financial barrier to making it in the fashion world, leaving those from less affluent backgrounds without the ability to break in to the industry.
In your latest collection, a twill-woven jacket costs £8,930. It is a bitter irony that this is almost as much as the amount of fees a student who may have made it is paying in course fees each year. No amount of luxury is worth the slaving away of an unpaid worker. That students are spending months creating these pieces of clothing and not seeing any return is downright disgraceful and the label should be ashamed.
I was shocked when I first learned just how prolific the practise of taking on unpaid interns was in fashion. Big name designers such as yours use and abuse fashion students to pattern, fasten, cut and sew in to the early hours and in some cases even use their original designs uncredited.
The attitude of some is that this is 'just the way it is', but it does not have to be. Students gaining work experience is one thing, but where any person is carrying out work integral to the running of an organisation, they must be paid at least the National Minimum Wage - anything less is a breach of the law. Your advertisement requests a student worker to be 'knitting on a domestic machine and making knitted samples, as well as research, CAD, presentation and organising of the collection.' This clearly meets the definition of 'work'. And it is not as if most labels do not have the money. Fashion contributes £21 billion to the UK economy, and with a revenue of over £40 million, McQueen can certainly afford to pay its staff. After much pressure from InternAware, Stella McCartney, a brand from the same business family last year signed up to pay their interns; clearly your brand is behind on this trend.
Alexander McQueen studied at my own college; he too was from a working class family and broke in to the industry after years as a paid apprentice on Savile Row before enrolling on MA Fashion. He worked hard and was paid for it. Considering his background it is unlikely McQueen would ever have been able to pay his way without a wage - his father was a cab driver and unlikely to have provided him with a trust fund. In fact, in his will the designer asked for part of his fortune to be granted to some of our most hard-up students at CSM. McQueen recognised the financial barriers that exist to make it in the industry: it is a great shame his legacy label is exacerbating them.
University of the Arts London Students' Union
— Jenna Sauers
· McQueen Apologises for Advertising Unpaid, Full-Time Internship [Telegraph]
· Former Interns Made Less Than $1/Hour, Sue Condé Nast [Racked NY]
· Alexander McQueen's Unpaid Internship Provokes Angry Students' Letter [HuffPo]