Fashion giants warned by the taxman: Stop abusing your unpaid interns or face prison
Change of policy: Stella McCartney did not previously pay youngsters but now does so. Fashion houses have been contacted to tell them to pay the minimum wage or face consequences
Fashion houses are being investigated by the taxman over their use of free labour.
HM Revenue and Customs has written to more than 100 companies telling them they must pay the national minimum wage or face the threat of prison.
Designer labels are notorious for taking on unpaid interns. Stella McCartney has been criticised in the past for using unpaid youngsters but is now paying them.
‘These letters give fashion houses plenty of warning that they are under scrutiny,’ said Michelle Wyer, an assistant director of HMRC.
‘If they are not playing by the rules, now is the time to put things right. Non-payment of the national minimum wage is not an option.
‘Our message is clear – don’t wait for us to come knocking on your door. Put things right now and avoid a penalty and possible prosecution.’
The national minimum wage is 6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and above.
HMRC’s crackdown was backed yesterday by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who said: ‘I strongly urge fashion houses and designer labels to make sure they are treating interns fairly. Where an individual is entitled to the minimum wage, they should receive it.
‘Internships provide valuable opportunities in opening up doors for the future. They should be available to everyone, not just those who can afford to work for nothing.’
With more than one in five people aged between 16 and 24 unemployed, many agree to become an intern and are too scared to ask for payment. Interns must be paid if they are doing a job rather than just shadowing a staffer for work experience.
Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the careers website Graduate Fog.co.uk and a campaigner for paid internships, said the fashion industry had been exploiting interns for years.
‘For too long, fashion houses have recruited brazenly for what are clearly illegal roles that take advantage of those who do them and exclude those who can’t afford to do them,’ she added.
‘These interns are not just work shadowing, making the tea and sorting the post. They are effectively doing full-time jobs, just without any pay.
‘Most of the time they do not lead to paid, permanent jobs – only to another unpaid internship. Many fashion companies are known to have a revolving door system, where one unpaid intern is simply replaced with another at the end of their placement.’
On the website Interns Anonymous, one intern wrote: ‘I felt as if I was dirt on the floor. We would have to work from 9am until late.
‘I tried to leave no later than eight [but] I know other interns who would work until midnight steaming clothes and mailing envelopes – unpaid.’
A spokesman for the British Fashion Council said: ‘HM Revenue and Customs has been in contact with the British Fashion Council with regards to interns within the fashion industry. We will be working together with them.’
The fashion houses that are understood to have been contacted include Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. There is no suggestion that either does not pay its interns or is failing to meet the minimum wage requirement.