According to a recent study, 39% of graduates in their 20s have done an internship. And of the employers who offer internships, almost half (48%) admit to offering them unpaid.
Under UK law, all workers have the right to earn minimum wage but companies can get away with not paying their interns by labelling internships as 'work placements/experience'. The problem goes even deeper, with data showing that an unpaid placement in London now costs interns more than £1,000 a month, excluding transport costs.
Despite these statistics, young people flock to internships in order to gain vital experience in their chosen industries. A survey among UK companies showed that internships are a highly practical route to graduate jobs, with 74% of employers making a job offer straightaway at the end of a placement. Fashion in particular is a notoriously hard industry to break into unless you have serious connections, and placements at fashion houses, big brands and magazines are highly sought after. But what is the world of work really like for unpaid fashion interns?
We talked to one 25-year-old who has completed her fair share of internships about the highs and lows...
How long did your various unpaid internships last?
I worked each internship between two weeks to a month depending on the publication or brand – usually it just depended on if they could reimburse you on your travel. Anything longer than two weeks, they had to pay you (which was usually your travel and lunch for the day).
How did you get the job?
I got my first internship through a friend, then I used Fashion Monitor to get email addresses of assistants, to send my CV and a basic cover letter asking if they needed any interns along with my availability. Magazines are always in need of interns so I would usually get responses from the fashion assistants.
Can you remember you first day?
My first day was extremely nerve-racking as I didn’t know what to expect. I waited in reception for someone to come and collect me. From there the day flew by. I had to get stuck in with returns as the week before had been busy for them. The other interns were welcoming, so the day was a breeze.
How did you feel to have landed the job?
I felt proud and one step closer to actually starting my career. Fashion was always something I wanted to do as a job, so it felt great to be a part of a big magazine(s). It was something I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family.
What sort of tasks were you given?
Most of the job was doing returns. So I’d have to package the samples back up and send them to the PRs. It was good because you got to learn what brands were represented by what PR. After doing it for so long you just knew it by memory, which made things easier. I’d also have to call samples in from PRs for shoots, help out on shoots and a lot of research. I can remember one day when all the staff had a team day out of the office, so it was only the interns and a stylist that remained. As there was a shoot the next day, the stylist needed some help calling in some items – this was the first time I did it. It made me happy that she thought I was capable and she kind of took me under her wing for that day. This stylist then gave a good recommendation about me to another stylist, which helped me get paid jobs. I was very appreciative of that, but looking back it’s still a lot of giving from the interns. One of the best parts of interning is making connections with people, though, so the giving can be worth it.
What sort of hours did you work?
Mostly nine-to-five but if it was a shoot day, the day would be longer.
Assistants would make you get their lunches and just never pay you back, or steal samples then blame it on the interns.
Were there other interns there and if so did you all bond?
Yes, there were other interns. You always hear horror stories about bitchy interns or assistants. I heard that assistants would make you get their lunches and just never pay you back, or steal samples then blame it on the interns. Interns going home crying, because of how badly they were treated. Luckily I never experienced most of that. I was always scared of losing an expensive sample, thinking I would have to pay for it, but that didn’t happen. The other interns were always very lovely and always wanted to get to know each other – I guess because we were all in the same boat (new, nervous, wanting to make a good impression). We all wanted each other to do well. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. There was an awkward moment when I was asked to assist on a shoot on two separate occasions when another intern hadn’t had a chance to go to a shoot yet. I felt like I was getting daggers from him but it’s so cutthroat – if the fashion assistants don’t like you, they won’t ask you to help out on a shoot. You have to make the best impression.
What about the people you worked for, did they treat you well?
Most assistants were really lovely. Obviously there were days when they were occupied with work, so they would only pop into the fashion cupboard occasionally. I felt I was treated like an intern, which can be taken as a good or a bad thing. Also as one of the few black girls in the office at all the fashion magazines I interned at, it’s hard not to feel like an outcast no matter how nicely they treat you. At one internship there were only two black girls in the entire office and we were both interns. There was a trend meeting which included all the staff. The editor-in-chief was talking about the lack of diversity on the runway from a specific season and I looked around the room and just thought, Practise what you preach. There was no diversity in the room I was sitting in. It felt really awkward, partly because I don’t think she even realised.
How did you survive on no wages?
I had a part-time job working in retail. So I would intern from Monday to Friday, then work Saturday and Sunday. It was very difficult because I had to live on basically no money because all my money was going on transport. It was also very exhausting because I had no time to myself to rest. I couldn’t go out with my friends because I had no money or time. My mum helped out a lot, too. There would be days I wouldn’t have any money to actually travel to the internship, so I'd have to ask my mum or tell the assistant I couldn’t make it.
Did you get any nice perks?
Usually at the end of the internships that didn’t reimburse your travel they would give you a bag full of nice beauty products. They usually had expensive bougie things that I’d never heard of before. Also, being able to make connections with different people, from interns to stylists and assistants, was a perk. Some publications would have beauty sales and you could get foundations, perfumes, hair straighteners really cheap.
Okay, what about the bad stuff...
I don’t think I was treated extremely badly but I remember having to go out and buy something for a shoot for one of the assistants. I had to use my own money and I was told I would get it back that day. As I was only working two days a week, I needed that money to travel. I didn’t get the money back until after two weeks. I would continuously ask for an update on when I would get it but would get no response, or that I’d get it soon. I got no apology when I finally got my money back.
Any boring jobs you had to do?
There would be days they had nothing for us to do. So that’s what we did, absolutely nothing, and the day would drag. But then a really busy day would come and would be really stressful. There’s only so many times you can ask if they need any help, for them to say no. So I would just clean up the fashion cupboard. There was a particular internship that I had to cut short because there was never anything to do.
And the good stuff...fun parties, great experiences, meeting cool people?
No parties, unfortunately. I did get to meet some cool stylists who gave amazing advice on how to penetrate the industry. Being on shoots with different models was the best experience. Seeing the outcome of a shoot, knowing you helped out on set was such a good feeling.
Did you get a paid job off the back of it?
I didn’t get a job but I was recommended to different people and I got to assist different stylists. I was asked to come back and help out as it was really busy, which I was paid for.
Looking back, do you think it was worth it?
It was definitely worth it, only because it confirmed exactly what I wanted and didn’t want to do in the fashion industry. I came out with a lot more knowledge and connections.
What advice would you give to other unpaid interns?
I would say save, save, save. Make sure you have enough money to travel as it can take a couple of months to get your money reimbursed. Also, always ask if you can help to do something. Make yourself useful in the office so you'll be remembered.