The Unstylish Side of New York Fashion Week - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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The Unstylish Side of New York Fashion Week

The Unstylish Side of New York Fashion Week

Twice a year designers, models, and fashionistas descend on Lincoln Center for New York Fashion Week. The eight-day fashion blitz is marked with runway shows, after-parties and special events throughout the city. This year even super storm Nemo, which blanketed Manhattan with a foot of snow, proved an unworthy opponent for the elite fashion show. Despite being seemingly unaffected by a storm that shook most of the northeast, NYFW was not impervious to the current political climate, embodied in the Occupy Wall Street movement, of rebelling against corporate dominance.

The Intern Labor Rights group, a sub-division of Occupy Wall Street’s Art & Labor group, used NYFW as a platform to stage a discreet protest against unpaid internships. On Thursday, February 7, protestors handed out small swag bags with “p.y.i.” printed on the front. Inside there was a “PAY YOUR INTERNS” pin and a flyer explaining why unpaid internships were wrong and being protested. The bag also included information on how to get involved in the movement, such as tweeting using the hashtags #devilpaysnada and #payinterns.

This Fashion Week protest figures into the larger mission of Occupy’s Arts & Labor groupof fighting for workers’ rights across the media and art industriesand that this protest was intended to invite “attention and critical eye to the widespread use of illegally unpaid workers in the fashion industry.” Eric Glatt, a co-organizer of the protests, argues that “[c]onventional wisdom dictates that internships are the only way for students get their foot in the door of their chosen profession… [yet] uncompensated internships are nothing short of ‘generational wage theft.’”

Although uncompensated internships are often joked about and ignored as the problems of the wealthy elite, viewing this topic in a broader context presents issues of both class and gender divides. Economically, Glatt contends that this system “institutionalizes class advantage [and] closes the door to people who cannot afford to work for free. It also puts downward pressure on people working and competing with free labor.” In terms of gender, The Atlantic argues that “[p]op culture has portrayed wage-free internships in fashion and art as the territory of spoiled young women.” This poor-little-rich-girl image of unpaid internships is perpetuated by gender stereotypes that assume these “young, middle-class-seeming women are somehow automatically taken care of financially” by either their husbands or their families.

Employment experts estimate that each year hundreds of thousands of young adults work as unpaid interns in the effort to gain work experience and exposure to their preferred industry. According to Glatt, this practice of unpaid internships “has become so normalized that a lot of people assume it must be legal.” However, the true test is articulated by the U.S. Department of Labor, which considers six criteria in determining the legality of an uncompensated internship. These criteria include that the internship “is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” that the “intern does not displace regular employees,” and that the “employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Under this legal test tasks like answering phones, cleaning up after models, and delivering coffee do not qualify as intern duties. Accordingly, some intern advocates claim that “many employers are taking advantage of these interns—and violating Labor Department rules in the process—by using the interns essentially to do the jobs of other workers and not providing a bona fide educational experience.”

Several recent lawsuits highlight the legal aspects of this issue. One example was the class-action lawsuit against Charlie Rose and his production company, Charlie Rose Inc., which was brought by a former unpaid intern alleging minimum wage law violations. The parties reached a settlement agreement under which the “Charlie Rose” show agreed to pay almost 190 ex-interns back wages of approximately $1,100 each. This settlement amount was reached by multiplying $110 per week of back pay for up to ten weeks- the average length of a school semester. This weekly payment was calculated based on the average internship week of 2.5 days a week, for six hours per day. Although federal law sets a three-year limit for collecting back wages, this lawsuit was brought under New York State law, which allows for up to six years. Lastly, since this was a settlement, and not a court order, it does not set any binding legal precedent.

A second example is the lawsuit filed against Hearst Corporation, the parent company of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, by a former unpaid intern at the magazine, Xuedan “Diana” Wang. The lawsuit alleges that Hearst Corporation violated federal and state wage and hour laws by not compensating Wang for doing the work of a paid employee, and that classifying workers as “interns” instead of regular employees not only denies them wages, but also denies them the right to receive workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and Social Security benefits. Additionally, Wang alleged that the company policy requiring that its unpaid interns receive college credit was an unlawful deduction from wages, in violation of Section 193 of the New York Labor Law, which prohibits deductions from wages except in certain circumstances. The court held that since Wang was not paid any wages, there could be no “deduction in wages” in violation of Section 193. Under this decision, employers may continue to require that unpaid interns purchase college credit without violating the unlawful deductions provision of Section 193. It currently remains to be seen if Wang will appeal this decision.

Although the Wang decision may count as a small victory for employers, increasing intern complaints as well as threats from the Labor Department to begin taking action has encouraged several companies to change their intern compensation policies. Condé Nast has implemented a policy of providing its interns with a $550 stipend per semester, while Fox Entertainment has also begun paying its interns. Although the practice of unpaid internships remains a constant in many industries, it is possible that these protests and lawsuits may continue to encourage more companies to begin compensating their interns.

Adiella Stadler