Well, there goes that reference letter. A former Harper’s Bazaar fashion closet intern is suing the magazine’s publisher Hearst for unpaid wages– and she’s trying to get other unpaid interns to sign onto a class action suit that could challenge the way the fashion industry (and in fact many industries) rely on the labor of eager young people just trying to get their foot in the door.
Media Decoder reports that Xuedan Wang, who interned in the fashion department at Bazaar from December 2010 to December 2011, worked more like an employee than an intern and wants to be paid for it. Her lawsuit, filed today in New York, claims that she worked 40 hour weeks — and sometimes up to 55 hour weeks — managing the fashion closet and supervising other unpaid interns as they handled merchandise requests, picked up clothes to be shot for the pages of the magazine and made sure they were returned to the right place at the right time. Wang and her lawyers want to make their case into a class action suit, saying that hundreds of former and current interns at Hearst’s magazines have found themselves similarly unpaid.
The rules on unpaid internships are pretty clear: The Labor Department says that unpaid interns can’t replace the work of regular employees, and that they can only be unpaid if they’re being trained to do something and whatever work they doesn’t make the company any richer. But for anyone who’s worked at a fashion house or a fashion publication (everyone on staff here at Styleite included), Wang’s situation is all too familiar. It’s not like it’s important scientific research, but fashion internships often operate like full-time jobs that you don’t get paid to do. There are more magazines and brands that take advantage of young people who’ve been told they have to break their backs for no wages in order to pay their dues and get ahead than don’t.
“Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work,” said Adam Klein, one of the lawyers for Ms. Wang. “The practice of classifying employees as ‘interns’ to avoid paying wages runs afoul of federal and state wage and hour laws.”
Some internships offer college credit instead of pay as a way to skirt those laws, which means that some people end up paying expensive college course fees in order to work for free. It eliminates the possibility of an unpaid internship for someone who can’t afford to work for free, much less pay for the privilege.
Still, not every intern is unpaid — there are plenty of interns across a lot of industries who are paid (even at Hearst!), and some are even fairly well paid. But as far as fashion is concerned that’s not often the case. We wonder if Wang’s suit will change that.