Officials have announced they will study evidence that X Factor has been employing unpaid interns, after Graduate Fog exposed the story last week. We have also demanded a public apology from Simon Cowell, if it is found that the programme has broken the law. This would send a clear message to big businesses that it is not okay to exploit their young staff.

Following our correspondence with several representatives for the programme, the broadcasting union BECTU felt there was enough evidence to request an official investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the body responsible for enforcing the minimum wage law for interns. A spokesperson confirmed that HMRC have agreed to study the evidence – and told the Guardian today:

“We take allegations of this nature very seriously. Our statutory duty of confidentiality means we cannot discuss individual cases, but every complaint we receive regarding the national minimum wage is looked into.”

Last night, BECTU’s website said:

“BECTU was concerned that news of the alleged abuse, just 48 hours before the screening of the X Factor final, would make a successful referral to the HMRC difficult. However BECTU has been advised that if the HMRC does decide to investigate it can do so retrospectively; in fact where an employer is found to have behaved unlawfully, payments for affected staff can be ordered up to six years in arrears. All employers are required to keep records of payments to staff going back at least three years.

“BECTU is one of several organisations working to counter the exploitation of workers engaged under the guise of ‘volunteer’ arrangements, ‘work experience’ or ‘internship’. An increasing number of employers, right across the economic spectrum, use these alternative labels to deny workers their right to be paid even the low level national minimum wage.”

HMRC may value confidentiality above all else but given the seriousness of these allegations we think it is essential that the outcome of this investigation is made public – and not hushed up. BECTU agrees with us, and have insisted they will pursue this case relentlessly, for which we thank them. We are also confident that the Guardian will pursue this doggedly.

If you haven’t been following our story this week, here’s what happened. We were first tipped off about four unpaid interns working on set by Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones. In her piece Inside the X Factory she alleged that the inerns – working for X Factor stylist Laury Smith – were “exhausted and in tears.”

We then approached representatives for the X Factor Style Team, who confirmed that there were four “regular” interns (“occasionally more on show days – Saturday and Sunday”), who had been working on-set for the last three months. Their duties involved “organising contestant and dancer clothes, picking up, co ordinating at studio, pressing garments, customising garments and doing returns after the live shows” and their working hours were “generally 10-6ish” (“Later sometimes if on video/ studios far out of town like Teddington & Shepperton”). Despite being paid only “travel and food,” Smith insisted:

“They are a great group, they work hard and we really cherish them. It is a totally normal situation in the industry, they get great experience and are now really ready to be employed as fashion assistants, with a years worth of experience in 3 months and a great reference”.

When we then approached Talkback Thames – the production company behind X Factor – they insisted they were “not aware” of the existence of these interns and asked that we make it clearer in our editorial that “her [Smith’s] interns are not X Factor interns.” A second spokesperson insisted this had been “an isolated incident.”

We will, of course, keep Graduate Fog’s readers updated as this story progresses. In the meantime, we are grateful to everybody who has helped spread the word about this. If you’re tweeting about X Factor during the final, please tweet this AT THE START OF THE FIRST AD BREAK:

Disappointed to see #xfactor using unpaid interns – not everyone can afford to work for free: http://t.co/kjMKP08A #payinterns @simoncowell


*Should the outcome of this investigation be made public?
What do you make of HMRC saying they must keep the details confidential? Which is more important – X Factor’s right to keep its business dealings private, or the public’s right to know the outcome of this case? If it’s found that X Factor has been breaking the law, would you want to see Simon Cowell apologise?

Missed the original stories? Catch up here:

Revealed: X Factor uses unpaid interns!

X Factor interns: Producers deny all knowledge

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