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Are Unpaid Fashion Internships Inherently Exploitative?

A new report argues that the fashion internship pipeline needs to be reimagined if the industry really intends to dismantle internal classism, racism and misogyny.
unpaid fashion internships

Not being paid for your work is bad. But paying someone else for the opportunity to get a job is even worse. 

And according to a new report, that's exactly what's happening at entry-level positions across the fashion industry: interns may pay more for the "privilege" of interning than they get paid to work. 

"Even when fashion interns are compensated for their work, more often than not payment is so low that students are forced to take out loans and rely heavily on family and friends for financial support to complete coops required for graduation," says a report called "The Dream Will Never Pay Off" from the Sustainable Fashion Initiative at the University of Cincinnati.

The report, which is based on two years of research by students Draven Peña, Alexa Ream and Elie Fermann and overseen by Liz Ricketts of The OR Foundation, goes on to claim that "on average a Fashion Design Student at the University of Cincinnati pays $37,607.50 for the expenses related to their internship experiences."

While some of the report's research focuses specifically on the University of Cincinnati, much of it is more broadly applicable to fashion interns studying anywhere in the U.S. Based on a combination of historical research, in-depth interviews with a few dozen people and a survey over a couple hundred more, it highlights the problems with the current internship pipeline in fashion careers.

The report outlines the discrepancy between the expectation students often have about internships — that they will, in the long run, lead to financial gain — and the reality, which is that they may be just as likely to put students (especially students from low-income backgrounds) into debt. The report notes that 77.8% of respondents said they received financial assistance from their family to make interning tenable.

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"What are low-income and working-class interns to do when these resources are not available to them? The answer is that they are forced to either take out loans, adding to the debt they will likely carry with them throughout adulthood, or they are forced to forgo the opportunity all together," the researchers write. To this they add anecdotes from individual respondents, like one who took out a $15,000 loan to cover internship-related expenses.

That might be marginally easier to justify if fashion internships reliably resulted in career-furthering connections, job skills and helpful mentors. But the report describes an opposite reality: interns being brought on to do menial tasks and not leaving with any real job training, or being totally ignored by supervisors who are supposed to be providing them with guidance. That's not to say anything of the sexual harassment, verbal abuse, sexism and racism that other former interns described encountering while on the job.

"Brands, how will you achieve diversity and inclusion targets if the only people who can afford to take unpaid Internships are white?" the researchers ask. It's a question that feels more pertinent than ever in 2020, as corporations scramble to respond adequately to the public outpouring of support for movements like Black Lives Matter.

SFI's report doesn't just point out problems with the ways that internships currently function. It also provides some guidelines for moving toward a more just entry-level fashion pipeline, including more payment transparency, CFDA oversight and mentorship guidelines. 

"To prioritize paying fashion's labor force will provide the foundation necessary to jump start the positive changes that are needed for this industry to survive," the authors write.

Read the full report here.

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