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Unpaid Fashion Internships Are So Last Season

09/26/2013 11:17 am ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

Unpaid internships are a staple in the fashion industry. This is because students and recent graduates faced with the competitive job and internship market will do whatever it takes to get their foot in the door. But will unpaid fashion internships soon be a faux pas?

The fashion industry is currently in the spotlight after the recent class-action lawsuit filed against Donna Karan International. One intern from 2009 is seeking retroactive pay for the hours he went uncompensated during his internship. This is just one of the many recent unpaid internship lawsuits coming to fruition against a number of employers in the private sector.

It's unfortunate that it's taken a slew of lawsuits to put unpaid internships in the hot seat. Allowing those seeking experience and entrance into the fashion industry to go without pay is truly a vestige of a time when the job market and economy were booming. It's time to make unpaid internships, especially those within the fashion and luxury sector, a last-season trend.

Lawsuits Aren't Haute Couture
A class-action lawsuit isn't something any employer wants to try on for size. And because almost all fashion-related internships take place in the private sector, it's highly likely that allowing your interns to go without at least minimum wage is illegal. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division and The Fair Labor Standards Act, there are guidelines for employers interested in offering internships. Still, this fact sheet is often misinterpreted -- and it can land employers in hot water.

As a very brief overview, these guidelines state that in order to be unpaid, an internship must be highly educational, or as close as possible to the educational experience students are receiving in college. A quick scan of the duties and responsibilities undertaken by a fashion intern often reveals the less-than-educational nature of the internship at hand. Also, the employer providing the internship must derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern or have duties that displace a regular employee. Each of these guidelines means tasks like fetching coffee, juggling errands and working the fax machine are a no-no -- unless you fork over some cash.

Just Say No To Discrimination
The fashion industry has a long history of being called out for discrimination -- whether it's discriminating against plus-size models or women of color. But as an industry fueled by unpaid internships, there's even more discrimination afoot. Unpaid internships are only accessible by the upper middle class. Think about it: Who else can afford to pick up and move to a pricey city like New York City or Los Angeles to work for free, while still managing to pay rent, transportation, food and the variety of other living costs that come in tow?

Today, 60 percent of the 20 million students attending college borrow annually to cover costs. It's also important to note that 65 percent of students rely on financial assistance from parents during their internships. After considering both these figures, is asking interns to sacrifice pay in the name of experience really feasible? Without well-off parents or student loans to spare, students and recent graduates simply aren't able to accept an unpaid internship.

What "Paid Internship" Actually Means
Did you know that paid internships turn into a job 60 percent of the time? And on the other hand, unpaid interns only end up turning into full time employment 37 percent of the time -- a measly one percent bump over no internship experience at all (36 percent). Let's face it: Unpaid internships are certain to damage your company's reputation in the long run.

Establishing a paid internship program says a lot about your company as an employer. It creates an immediate environment where you can prove to your interns that you value them as temporary employees, care about their well-being and ability to cover living expenses during their time with you, and that you're invested in them for the future -- even if you don't offer them employment post-internship.

It's Time To Rethink The Internship Experience
Hiring an intern isn't an excuse to gain an extra set of hands to do menial tasks while saving some cash. In fact, some fashion internship job descriptions have been called out for being downright abusive in nature.

Take this Alexander McQueen internship listing for example. In the UK, McQueen sent out an urgent call for interns to fashion colleges in universities. The fashion giant was seeking a "talented knitwear student" to work nine and a half hours a day, five days a week, for six to 11 months. The only compensation provided was a lunch stipend of £60 a month, which equates to US $4.50 per day.

This internship sounds more like a full-time position. If you're truly looking to bring on a talented knitwear intern, consider their need for flexibility as a student, and pay them at least the minimum wage for their efforts. And keep in mind, simply paying your interns doesn't mean you're also providing them with an educational, immersive experience. Ensure you're giving your interns a fantastic experience by providing them with hands-on projects, mentorship, training, industry insight and much more than administrative work.

The time has come to put an end to unpaid internships. If you truly care about the future of the fashion industry, you'll make these outdated, illegal and discriminatory paths to gain experience a thing of the past.

Ashley Mosley is Community Engagement Manager of InternMatch, an online platform connecting the best intern candidates and employers. Connect with Ashley and InternMatch on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.