…YET CLAIM THEY ARE “PASSIONATE” ABOUT PROTECTING YOUNG WORKERS FROM EXPLOITATION
*GRADUATE FOG EXCLUSIVE*
Topshop has admitted to hiring interns – and paying them only £3.50 a day. These young workers are expected to work five days a week from 9am-5pm doing tasks which appear to require skill and responsibility. The interns are reimbursed for their travel expenses (within zones 1-6) but the only actual payment they receive is £3.50 per day towards their lunch.
Yet when asked to explain how they feel their internships fit with the UK’s minimum wage law – as part of our Pay Your Interns campaign – the high street chain was unable to offer a satisfactory answer. Instead, they insisted that internships are “an issue we are passionate about.” They are “very mindful at Topshop about the negative side to work experience and internships that exists in many workplaces today” and it is an issue they “work hard to set ourselves apart from the industry on.” The spokesperson – from Topshop’s HR department – also said:
“I can assure you that at Topshop, as across the Arcadia Group, we have a clearly defined approach and policy to what work experience is and isn’t.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the impression we got from her preceding emails. In those, she cheerfully told us:
“What they are involved in varies which departments they are in!”
When we pressed her for more detail on the tasks given to interns, she said:
“An example of what design work experience would get involved in is below:
- General assisting of the knit and jersey design team- photocopying/printing, helping out in everyday activities and general development of garments, motifs and designs
- Trend research; on-line, magazines and fashion blogs/tumblers
- Created trend packs for knit and jersey
- Small creative projects – motif research and development using Photoshop and hand drawn designs
Annotation and specking up of designs”
We don’t understand all this jargon, but we think it sounds like much more than work shadowing. These seem to be proper tasks which would need to be done by a paid employee if the intern was not there. We asked them how long these internships typically last, but they have not yet answered this question.
The retailer was approached as part of Graduate Fog’s Pay Your Interns campaign in which we are asking big brands to clarify their policy on internships and publishing the results online.
We are particularly puzzled by Topshop’s tight-fistedness towards their junior staff when young people make up a large part of their core customer base (typical shoppers are aged 16-34). Topshop is also the market leader of young people’s high-street fashion. So wouldn’t you expect them to show a little more respect towards their young workers, by paying them properly?
It’s not like Topshop is short of a few quid. Owned by Kate Moss’s close friend Sir Philip Green, the brand has an annual turnover of £2.8 billion and reported pre-tax profits of £214 million last year. It is part of the Arcadia Group, which also includes Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Miss Selfridge. Topshop is the only high street brand to show at London Fashion Week and counts Beyonce, US Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and Samantha Cameron as customers. It also has an aggressive expansion programme – Topshop aims to double its sales by 2015. Are unpaid interns written into this plan?
We felt that Topshop’s email outlining the work interns were expected to do raised several questions, which you would probably like us to ask. So we emailed back:
From: Graduate Fog
To: Topshop HR
Date: 21 September 2011
Thanks again for all your emails regarding internships at Topshop. However, I have some concerns about their contents – and would be grateful if you could answer the following questions too?
- From the description you gave me of the tasks that the interns do, it sounds as if they do quite a bit of proper, useful work for Topshop – yet you pay them less than the national minimum wage (NMW). Can you explain how you feel this fits with our NMW law? There is no legal definition of an ‘intern’ but the legislation states that anybody who fits the criteria of being a ‘worker’ (with set hours and responsibilities, not free to come and go as they please, not just work shadowing and not doing is as part of their course) must be paid at least the NMW for their work. (This is £5.93 for over-21s, rising to £6.08 on 1 October). All employers must pay this and an intern cannot waive their right to these wages, even if they say they are prepared to work for free in order to gain experience.
- If you are concerned that Topshop’s current policy on using unpaid interns may not fit with the National Minimum Wage law, are you prepared to review it now that we have brought it to your attention?
At Graduate Fog, we believe that unpaid internships exploit those who do them – and exclude those who can’t afford to do them. We believe these internships are getting longer and longer – with less chance of a job at the end of them. We believe that it is a myth that unpaid internships lead to paid, permanent jobs – now, they are actually replacing paid, permanent jobs. Many employers are unaware of the damage that the practice is doing to young people’s futures. Is Topshop one of them?
With thanks again
Here is Topshop’s response in full:
From: Topshop HR
To: Graduate Fog
Date: 22 September 2011
Thanks for your email, I am aware of the issues in the wider industry that you’ve alluded to.
I appreciate that this issue is of great interest to you and we’re very mindful at Topshop about the negative side to work experience and internships that exists in many workplaces today. I can reassure you that at Topshop, as across the Arcadia Group, we have a clearly defined approach and policy to what work experience is and isn’t.
It is an issue that we are very passionate about within the Brand, and which we work hard to set ourselves apart from the industry on. If you would like further information about how we manage work experience within our business we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this face to face as we are continually looking to improve on the value we add to our work experience placements.
This is not the first time Topshop has become the target of a grass-roots campaign about the company’s principles. The brand has also been singled out by UK Uncut for avoiding paying tax in the UK, by registering the company to Sir Philip’s wife Tina, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco. This (completely legal) tax dodge costs the British taxpayer £285m, enough to pay the salaries of 9,000 NHS nurses. The ninth richest man in Britain – Sir Philip is also an “efficiency adviser” to the Government.
This latest revelation about Topshop’s use of unpaid interns is unlikely to go down well with the company’s young customers, who are feeling the squeeze thanks to graduate debt, the soaring cost of living and plummeting starting salaries. Increasingly, companies who use unpaid interns are being accused of taking advantage of young people’s desperation to gain experience in order to maximise their profits. Is the tide about to turn against Topshop?
*Do you shop at Topshop?
Do you think less of the brand now you know they pay their interns so little? Have you ever interned at Topshop? What tasks were you given – and were you paid for your work?
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