Should Interns Sue Employers For Back Wages?

embed amqPhoto: Courtesy of Alexander McQueen.
In the highly competitive fashion industry, it's almost unheard of for an unpaid intern to bring a formal lawsuit against her employers. And, it's even more unusual for that suit to effect lasting change. But, that's what happened this week, when Rachel Watson (not her real name, but a pseudonym her lawyers want used) filed a lawsuit against British fashion house Alexander McQueen for unpaid wages. The Guardian reports that Watson interned for the label for four months in 2009 and 2010, with duties that included repairing embellished clothing, drawing artwork for embroidery, and dying large quantities of fabric.
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In the suit, Watson's lawyer stated that when interns do "real work under a contract," they should be paid at least the national minimum wage. So, Watson is suing the house for up to £6,415 (just over $10,000) in "lost wages" she would have earned in her time there.
We admit that our knee-jerk reaction was one of dismay. Should a person who knowingly accepts an unpaid internship be allowed to turn around and sue? Wouldn't that encourage employers to shut down their internship programs — as publishing giant Condé Nast recently did — rather than take on the liability of training up-and-comers? On the other hand, Watson states that she accepted the internship because she saw "almost no other way into the fashion industry." Certainly, for someone without any contacts or family connections, an internship is the only way in — this writer's own early resume full of unpaid gigs can attest to that.
Watson went on to say: "I quickly realized I was being exploited. How could I confront my employer at the time when they held all the cards to my future in the industry?" For us, that imbalance of power is the crux of the issue. The standard logic is that young people must pay their dues by working for free in industries with that "millions would kill to take your place" factor, like fashion. But, as Chris Hares, a spokesperson for Intern Aware points out, "fashion is a competitive industry with high profits, and the idea that one of the most profitable companies in the world could have people working for free is shameful." That's certainly a more humane idea than the standard "keep your head down and take a night job."
To its credit, Alexander McQueen released a statement that those at the company "support and encourage young creative talent and offer a window into what is a fiercely competitive, but rewarding industry.” To that end, the house has agreed to pay all interns from now on. No matter how Watson's suit is resolved, leveling the fashion playing field — so that newbies don't have to come from money, or take a second job to support themselves — can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole. (The Guardian)
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