The famous people sitting in the front row for London's leading fashion shows later this week may feel they have earned those seats, but few will have worked as hard as an unpaid fashion intern.
When London Fashion Week begins on Friday, campaign group Intern Aware will use the glamorous five-day event to highlight unfairness behind the scenes in the industry. So while celebrities and fashion pundits scrutinise the latest designs from Nicole Farhi, Tom Ford or Paul Smith, members of Intern Aware will demonstrate on behalf of the young volunteers who often help to make such shows happen.
According to Gus Baker, co-director of the national campaign, most of the interns who have spoken to his organisation are too frightened to give their names, or to say where they have been working for free, fearing that their careers could be ended.
One 22-year-old told the Observer that she had cut patterns, handled fabric and set up fashion shows, but not been paid. "Interns from wealthy backgrounds cope better because they can still pay their rent," she said. "Me and my friends can't really last, although it is 100% what we want to do. Some places do pay their interns, but although you are grateful, it is very hard when they don't pay anything."
Her reluctance to name names "makes it clear how scared this industry makes people about standing up for themselves," said Baker. "Two years ago Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs [HMRC] wrote to all the designers who show at London Fashion Week to warn them that by not paying their interns they could be in breach of national minimum wage [NMW] legislation. Despite this warning, our sources suggest very little has changed."
Intern Aware will protest by handing out tote bags bearing the message "Pay Your Interns" at Somerset House, headquarters of London Fashion Week. The bags will contain information about minimum wage legislation, advice for interns and information about Intern Aware's Claim Back Your Pay scheme, as well as a letter written by Libby Page, who has worked as an unpaid fashion intern seven times.
"I started doing internships when I was 16," said the 20-year-old from Dorset. "I would often be expected to work for six months for free, but I have never done more than a month because I couldn't afford it. I feel now that if an intern is doing any actual work they should be paid."
Page's letter reads: "Mistreatment of fashion interns is something the industry should be ashamed of, and something we should be talking about. I have heard far too many stories from friends, peers and young people around the country working long hours in poor conditions and being subjected to demeaning treatment in the name of fashion. 'The intern will do that' is not a phrase I want to hear again."
The campaign has collated information from students and fashion websites to gain evidence of free work schemes at leading design houses. One design student told Intern Aware of an unpaid placement with a famous label, partly based in London, where the interns slept under the workshop table.
The British Fashion Council said: "We have been working with HMRC to clarify and communicate the legal situation regarding interns and work experience. There is much misunderstanding and it is really important to ensure that we are helping those within the fashion sector, particularly the designer businesses, to be aware of their NMW obligations.
"Our main priority is to help designer businesses manage the financial implications of complying with the NMW regulations, ensuring their business can continue to develop despite potentially increased salary costs.
"It is in everyone's interest that the broader industry is still able to create jobs, giving experience and opportunity to future employees, training them and encouraging young people to join the sector. We are confident that there is now much greater awareness about this issue across the industry."
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