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Law: Aspiring Fashion Writer to Pay Over $12,000 for Internship at Vogue

For those who dream of meritocracy it is a crying shame, for the bankers, lawyers and academics who run the RFK Center it is a coup: Vogue is auctioning off a week’s internship to benefit the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

The current bid is $12,000 with a few days left to run on the auction at Charity Buzz. The question is, does association with a charity automatically excuse charging for work-experience? Here’s what $12,000 will buy you:

Package includes one week at the Vogue office in New York City, plus an opportunity to meet Anna Wintour. The experience would be tailored to the interests and skills of the auction winner. Also includes 2 tickets to New York’s Fashion Week, The September Issue DVD, and books In Vogue; Vogue Living: Houses, Gardens, People; The World in Vogue: People, Parties, Places and The Teen Vogue Handbook. Must be at least 18 years old. This is based upon a mutually agreeable time.

The above work experience may well fall within the employment law of the USA as the devil is always in the detail with each employment law case. The test for legality of wage-free labour in the USA is as follows:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has developed the six factors below to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act]:

    1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
    2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
    3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
    5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
    6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.


In both Britain and the USA, unpaid internships are becoming a political issue as competition for work increases as a result of the recession.The requirement for experience among a decreasing number of employment opportunities has led to an increased advantage for those with the means to bankroll an unpaid experience. The obvious disparity between candidates from different socio-economic backgrounds is exacerbating inequality, so says Alex Try, co-founder of Interns Anonymous:

Internships are often the only way for talented graduates to get into competitive industries. But only those who can afford to work for free for months at a time are able to do them. It seems that getting a great job is not about how good you are, it’s about how much money you have or if you parents can afford to support you.

According to the New York Times, Stanford University saw 643 unpaid internships posted on its job board this academic year and the UK’s Graduate Talent Pool – set up by the government there – advertises over 2000 unpaid internships, a fact which is plainly advertised on the website homepage.

The Global Herald spoke to Matt Dykes from the Trade Union Congress, which has recently launched a resource for those concerned about exploitation of internships: www.rightsforinterns.org.uk:

A graduate recruitment company I spoke to recently said that internships had been marketed so well that he had cases of graduates turning down paid jobs in order to take up unpaid internships in the belief that it was a better kick start to a career.

Of course, as graduate employment opportunities diminished in the downturn, internships grew in number and popularity. There’s no shortage of eager young talent desperate to get on, with low awareness of their rights and even less power to enforce them. Ideal conditions for exploitation.

He said of the $12,000 work-placement auction for Vogue US:

This is just a very extreme manifestation of a wider problem of fair access to internships. Unpaid internships by their nature favour those who have families who can support them while donate their time and labour for free. We’ve heard of other companies seeking payment for placements and, of course, nepotism and family connections play a powerful role in who gets the opportunities.

The Low Pay Commission investigated the issue of minimum wage in relation to interns and took evidence from the National Union of Journalists, Equity, the TUC and interns anonymous. They also heard from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (the department which deals with tax in the UK) and noted that criminalising the marketing or advertising of unpaid work may become an option for the enforcing authorities.

The Low Pay Commission Report 2010 said of interns:

4.78 …we are concerned about the increasing number of organisations that are relying on interns, often for several months, to perform work for no pay. The evidence we received on unpaid work experience indicates that there is systematic abuse of interns, with a growing number of people undertaking ‘work’ but excluded from the minimum wage.

Further legislation is unlikely in either the US or UK. However, the strains of the recession are leading to greater resentment over the requirement in some industries for unpaid experience. Given the current economic climate and election fever in Britain, a crackdown on employing workers without pay is likely.

The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions takes a much broader view of the entire recruitment issue. Unpaid internships are listed alongside other examples of “opportunity hoarding” which have led to a decline in social mobility since WWII in the UK. Requirements for extensive extra-curricular achievement and “soft-skills” are allowing the top professions to recruit from a narrow social strata without fear of prosecution or litigation.

Also listed among problems for fair access are the decline in non-graduate routes to professions such as articles for lawyers, book-keeping for accountants and entry-level jobs in journalism, which used to allow people to progress to professional jobs without attending university. A large expansion of vocational programs of training are not translating into diversity in the top jobs.

Around 7% of the UK population are educated at independent schools, yet independently educated people make up 50% of medics, 55% of journalists, 55% of solicitors and 40% of politicians. There is also a strong correlation between a comparatively high family income whilst growing up and membership of a profession, a trend which is on the increase.

Inequality may be presented as an ailment for all in society, reducing quality of life throughout an entire nation – not just for those at the bottom. However, it is also a matter of principle and fairness which underpins democracy, justice and the ideals of meritocracy.


Businesses and workers looking for advice and guidance on training opportunities within the law should refer to the following sources of information or seek specific advice from an experienced employment lawyer:

About Linda Scott

Linda Scott
Linda Scott is Editor in Chief, and a founder of, The Global Herald.

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