When your office intern has a better handbag (and shoes, and jewellery and vacations, and postal code…) than you, it makes you want to play ‘trading places’. Or cry. The fashion industry attracts well-heeled interns by the Louis Vuitton carry-all. Usually they are young and pretty and well-dressed. They are also the daughters or granddaughters of executives, or top advertisers and suppliers to the company. Many of them are hard-working and keen. But not all.
When I was the editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada magazine, every spring, like the chirping of a Red Robin, I’d be informed that, “Oh, and by the way, so-and-so’s daughter will be spending the summer”.
One year we enjoyed the services of a French-speaking intern, a relation of the company’s founder. She was a sweet girl hoping to improve her English while working with us. She couldn’t write, so I gave her little research assignments, one of which was to cull images of Sophia Loren. A week late, the girl proudly placed a thick packet of photos on my desk. Later, when I looked them over, I couldn’t find one photo of Loren. When I asked her where the Loren photos were, she looked confused. “This is Sophie,” she said. “She’s an actress in Quebec.” “No, no,” I replied. “I need photos of Sophia Loren, the famous Italian actress.” To which she replied, “Never heard of her.”
Another summer, the daughter of the president of the Mexican printing company affiliated with my former publisher, joined us. Though her English was good, her work ethic was rather mild. She spent most of the workday flipping through magazines, re-applying lipgloss, tossing her lustrous ebony hair around, and wondering when would we do a photo shoot with her as cover model.
These girls were totally useless. Worse than useless, because the magazine’s staff had to create make-work projects and show them a good time so they would give a “good report” back to their fathers. Big deal. Pretty harmless, right? No. The magazine received scores of applications from students in fashion and journalism programs desperate for work experience. We aimed to be democratic and hire those who really merited a spot but many talented applicants were shut out to make room for some bigwig’s daughter. Apparently, in the States, the stakes are even higher than here. It’s not enough to be Mr. Big’s daughter. Mr. Big actually has to pay the magazine to get you that coveted unpaid internship.
Unpaid internships are a bad idea all around. First, working class kids need to earn real money to pay real rent and buy real groceries. They can’t just work for magazine swag. That leaves a sub-set of affluent kids who can afford to hang out as free help in the glamour industries of fashion, publishing, film and TV, where unpaid internships are rife. The self-selection often makes these sectors look less like meritocracies and more like private country clubs. Second, unpaid work depresses pay rates for those doing similar work. Third, women are 75% more likely to work without pay. This reinforces the unequal gender distribution of wealth, as well as the odious ideology that lurks underneath: Women are financially taken care of elsewhere, so pay does not have to be fair.
The equation is simple: If it looks like work; it’s work. If it feels like work; it’s work. If it’s making money for someone, it’s work. It’s work, dawg. So make it pay.