April 24, 2015

Diary of an Intern: Julia at Hand and Lock, week 4

Image by Sophia Spring

This week I am going to tackle the million dollar question: Are unpaid internships a fair exchange? I expect that you have an opinion on this subject and it would be great to open a discussion and read your views. The debate about unpaid internships has recently erupted during the run up to the British political election. Should the U.K. Labour party gain power they promise to introduce a time limit of four weeks on unpaid internships.

Image by Sophia Spring

In the U.K. internships have become a recognised path to gaining a first level position in many work sectors from fashion, media and music to finance and technology. The Labour party argue that unpaid internships block the job market by restricting access to this fundamental first stage in many competitive careers to only the wealthiest individuals. Last year many corporations stated that almost half of all graduate positions would be reserved for those who can demonstrate previous work experience. Naturally students and graduates relax their work rights in order to follow their passion.

Image by Sophia Spring

According to the Independent, an average unpaid internship in the U.K. lasts three months and in London it usually costs more than £930.00 per month in living expenses. (article) This is not a venture one could embark on lightly and obviously requires a great deal of funding. Fortunate students and graduates are funded by their parents, however this is not the only route. Many people take a weekend or evening job to supplement living costs. In my case I have used savings and I would suggest that taking a year out to work and save some cash is a possible solution.

When googling 'Fashion Internships' a host of horror stories can be found. Big and small fashion houses rely on interns to carry out an integral job. This begs the question of how these companies’ business model is structured; by using free labour huge savings can be made. Some designers have stated that their business simply wouldn't survive without interns. Cozette McCreery of Sibling resigns that “Their (interns) time is important and their input into the workings and production of a collection is really vital.” (article). No wonder that interns struggle under the pressure, or worse, not only from a colossal 12 hour day and 80 hour working week but the absolute necessity to work at great speed and produce impeccably perfect results as though they had been doing the job for years. Obviously this means that the end result may suffer and the consumer has to also pay the price for this oversight.

Is this business behaviour more a reflection of the entire industry? The fashion industry is known for scandals regarding the treatment of paid factory workers, for instance. Much of the Italian high-end fashion is produced in unscrupulous sweatshops spread across Northern Italy where Chinese immigrants are brought over illegally to work in squalid and cramped conditions.

In contrast my experience at Hand & Lock has been beneficial to me and I have learnt a great deal. From the beginning the staff have been very accommodating by agreeing to a four day working week as well as informing me that a working day starts at 10:00 and finishes at 16:30.

The majority of my day is filled with embroidery based work and my colleagues are on hand to ask for advice and feedback. After only eight weeks here, I feel like I’m part of the extended Hand & Lock family. This is a far cry from some other intern’s experiences.

Image by Sophia Spring

I support the importance of work experience for graduates or somebody entering a field of work, whether it is paid or not. The confidence and practice garnered will hold me in good stead for the future whether it leads directly to paid employment in the industry or not. On the other hand where internships are misinterpreted by employers as a replacement for a paid position and the eagerness of the worker is exploited, perhaps here in the U.K, a new law and better investigation by the authorities may lead to a positive change. It could also provide clarity to business and re-affirm a benchmark for business standards.

We, the interns, also have some power in making this change and have the option to choose what we accept. It’s important to know what you hope to gain from an internship and to stand firm. I would recommend first researching which companies are known for offering decent internships and which are not: http://www.jobsite.co.uk/worklife/intern-heaven-intern-hell-10960/

The big names are not always the best option as sometimes you can learn more from a company that is in its initial stages of growing the business. Remember that within each industry these ‘horror’ experiences are well known and it is preferable when seeking further employment to be clear about what you expect for yourself in terms of payment and rights.

Please join the debate by commenting below - I look forward to reading your experiences.

Hi, I'm Julia! Based in Amsterdam, I am an embroidery enthusiast with a life long passion for textiles. I will be contributing during my work placement at the prestigious Hand and Lock a London based, embroidery and embellishment company with 250 years of heritage.

Join me every other Friday for my Diary of an Intern posts!
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  1. Regulation is so important, you are right... or else these jobs are just for people from wealthy and privileged backgrounds.

  2. I worked as Embroiderer at Hand and Lock... after the 4 month 'training period', which I excelled at, they offered me the full-time position at minimum wage.
    Highly skilked job with a Central London commute. Absolutely disgusting. Even the head embroiderer in the workroom was only offered marginally more.