UNPAID INTERNSHIPS: YAY OR NAY?

I read an article this morning that claims around 40 past and present interns of Dualstar Entertainment Group (otherwise known as the media and fashion juggernaut company run by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) are banding together to sue the twins for “failure to pay” wages or college credit for, what they claim, were “grueling hours spent on tedious tasks.”

In the New York Post, one former intern at the Olsen brand The Row, details her experiences working under the brand’s head technical designer:

“She was very demanding,” Lalani recalled. “I was doing the work of three interns. I was talking to her all day, all night. E-mails at nighttime for the next day, like 10 p.m. at night.”

Lalani claims she was hospitalized for dehydration because of the job’s demands.

“It was like 100 degrees outside. I’d just be sweating to death. I probably carried like 50 pounds worth of trench coats,” to Row factories, she said.

The Canadian native put in 50-hour weeks “inputting data into spreadsheets, making tech sheets, running personal errands for paid employees, organizing materials, photocopying, sewing, pattern cutting, among other related duties,” according to court papers.

“The head technical designer was like, ‘Go get my Advil. I need this and this because I’m feeling sick and I have this meeting,’ ” Lalani said.

“When we weren’t doing something, they’d be like, ‘Organize the buttons in the back by color code.’ You’re cleaning. You don’t get a set 15-minute break. You just go with their crazy flow. You just [got] caught up in the pressure,” Lalani claims.

“You’re like an employee, except you’re not getting paid. They’re kind of mean to you. Other interns have cried. I’d see a lot of kids crying doing coffee runs, photocopying stuff.”

The suit says the interns should have been paid minimum wage with overtime because they were doing the same types of jobs as paid employees without receiving academic credit.

Ethical issues with unpaid internships are nothing new — it has been a hot-button issue for the past several years. Earlier this year, publishing giant Condé Nast settled to the tune of $5.8 million with former interns as far back as 2007 who filed a similar class action suit as the one now faced by the Olsens’ company. That suit managed to shut down the entire internship program at Condé Nast.

In college, I had two publishing internships, including one at Condé rival Hearst. In fact, I specifically went to NYU because of the internship connections I knew I could get with NYU on my resume. As someone who always wanted to work in magazines, there was no better place to go to college than New York City, the publishing capital of the world. Getting those internships similar to the ones now under fire was my single, solitary goal going into college.

I was very fortunate in many ways: for one, I did not need a paid internship. I was lucky enough to have enough money to survive as a college student in New York without being paid a stipend and with working part-time on breaks and holidays. Many of my peers were not so lucky, having to juggle full-time school schedules with interning and part-time jobs for income.

I was also very lucky to have two very good internship experiences. I did not have the horrible experience that many apparently have at some of these fashion houses and magazines. I worked hard, learned a lot, and was very appreciative for the experience I received at both places. And yes, I did receive college credit. NYU’s journalism department was fantastic in protecting me in that way.

I really can’t say a bad thing about my time interning. Would it have been nice to be paid? Sure. However, looking back now, and reading more about this as these issues come to the surface, I do think interns should be paid at least a stipend for their time. At the time, I treated interning as a way to learn and pay my dues, to prepare me for a real-life career in publishing. There were great perks, from the swag table, to cool parties, and the ability to see firsthand how huge publications, the ones I’ve spent most of the years of my life analyzing and reading cover to cover, are created. Sometimes, money is not the most important thing.

However, I’m horrified now to see how woefully ignorant I was just a few short years ago. I didn’t REALLY realize that many of my fellow interns, possibly at the same publications that I was, were being so horribly mistreated. It makes me sick inside to think that classmates, peers, and friends, could have been working insane hours, being yelled at, being denied the right to a break or downtime.

I hope that this is only the beginning of a change in the internship system — not just in New York, and not just in fashion or publishing. I hope we set the bar higher. We need to. One day, when my future daughter comes to me and tells me she wants to intern for a big fashion company or glossy magazine, I want her to be respected and treated as an equal. Equality will never go out of style.

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UNPAID INTERNSHIPS: YAY OR NAY?