Last week it was Sir Philip Green – this week Simon Cowell has become the latest tycoon forced to pay his young workers. Between four and 10 interns who worked for less than the minimum wage on last year’s X Factor have received pay-outs of up to £3,000 from the programme’s makers, Graduate Fog can exclusively reveal.

When asked about the payments, Talkback Thames’ head of publicity told us: “This matter was dealt with last year and [we] have no further comment on the issue.” She refused to tell us how many interns had been paid, how much money they received, why the payments had been made and whether Simon Cowell is aware of the pay-outs.

Regular readers of Graduate Fog will know that this is a significant victory, after we first blew the whistle on X Factor back in December 2011. The news comes just a week after we revealed that Arcadia – the company that includes Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, and which is owned by Cowell’s billionaire friend Sir Philip Green – has also made substantial payments to former workers who interned there for only travel and lunch expenses, sometimes up to a year ago. Is this the start of a tidal wave of claims from former interns demanding the earnings they deserve?

Join Interns Fight for Justice – our new campaign to help interns to take their high-profile former employers to tribunal. We’ve lawyered-up, so you don’t have to!

Former X Factor intern ‘Emma’ (name changed), told us she had received a pay-out of £3,000 from Talkback Thames, after working on X Factor for almost three months last winter. She and three other interns were part of the so-called ‘X Factor Style Team’, responsible for dressing the contestants, supervised by freelance stylist Laury Smith. Emma asked for us to keep her name secret (as she is still keen to work in fashion), but she wanted the story to be reported “because I think it’s really important that interns get a fair deal.” She added:

“I worked with X Factor for the full duration of about three months. There were four full-time interns but we’d occasionally have a few extra interns at weekends. The four of us worked six or seven days a week doing 10-15 hour days. Sometimes we were told we couldn’t have breaks — or that we weren’t allowed days off, even though we were working for free.

“I think a lot of people’s view was that because everyone has had to intern unpaid to get their jobs, we should all have to do it too. What they forget is that prospects for interns are worse than they have ever been before. I’ve been working in the industry for two years and have only been paid for a few internships I’ve done. It’s madness. It’s not fair on those of us who do these internships — and of course those who can’t afford to do them are totally excluded from the opportunities, which I don’t agree with either.”

The pay-outs are an embarrassing climb-down for X Factor, who insisted that reports of unpaid interns on the show were inaccurate, when they surfaced in December 2011. At the time a spokesperson for the programme makers told us they were unaware that these interns even existed:

“talkbackTHAMES does not use free interns. We have a strict policy on all of our shows where we always pay people except when they are doing genuine, short-term work experience and are not actually performing any work or it’s a formal school or college placement. Everyone else is paid. We were not aware that interns were being used by the stylist and we are looking into the matter.”

But this conflicted directly with what a source at Our Assembly PR — which handles the X Factor Style Team — had told us. Their spokesperson said cheerfully:

“They [the unpaid interns] 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.”

Later the Guardian picked up the story and the broadcasting union BECTU made a complaint to HM Revenue and Customs. But as HMRC refuse do tell ‘third parties’ — including journalists — about any ongoing investigations, that was the last we heard of it… until Emma dropped Graduate Fog a line directly. So did Talkback Thames know these interns were there all along? This is her version of events:

“Once it was discovered that we were working there unpaid, there was a lot of passing the buck. Talkback Thames did actually try to deny they knew my boss [freelance stylist Laury Smith] had hired unpaid interns. But that’s rubbish — they did know.

“Although I think Laury should have fought our corner more than she did, she wasn’t in control of budget and how much money the department was allocated — those decisions were made much higher up. Talkback Thames knew exactly who we were, there’s no way they would have paid us had it not all come out in the press.

“In the end, Syco/Talkback Thames realised they had to pay us all (including the weekend interns). The week of the final show my boss [freelance stylist Laury Smith] was told no one was to work unpaid, so the company had no choice but to pay us. If the interns hadn’t worked the final week, there would be only five members of the team to organise all the contestants and dancers.

“Initially we were just meant to be paid for the remaining five days, but in the end I was back-dated pay of £3,000 (which was about 10 weeks work, so £300 a week) Obviously I was happy with this, although I’m still not sure that the pay adds up to what I should have received, considering the hours I worked.

“The whole organisation of that show is a nightmare. By the end of my time on X Factor, it wasn’t even about the money, it was more about the fact it wasn’t ethically right.”

In light of these pay-outs, we approached Talkback Thames for a comment:

To: X Factor / Talkback Thames
From: Graduate Fog
Date: Friday 25 May 2012, 5.38pm
Subject: Pay-out for X Factor interns

Hi Caren,

My name is Tanya de Grunwald and I run Graduate Fog, the website for job-seeking graduates.

I am writing because I have reason to believe that X Factor / Talkback Thames has made payments to a number of former interns for the work they did on last year’s series. I understand that at least four interns have received substantial payments of several thousand pounds, to cover several months of work that was – at the time – unpaid.

I would be very grateful if you could answer the following questions:

1) How many former X Factor employees have been issued with payments for work they undertook during the last series? When were these payments made? What is the total amount that X Factor has paid out in payments like these?

2) What led X Factor to do this? Were you instructed to do this by HM Revenue and Customs? Did you receive any notification that if these payments were not made, X Factor would face either a fine or prosecution by HM Revenue and Customs? Has X Factor been fined by HM Revenue and Customs for non-payment of the minimum wage in these cases – or are these payments being made in order to avoid a fine / prosecution?

3) Does X Factor accept that these payments are effectively an admission that these internships / work experience placements should always have been paid – and that accepting these employees’ labour without paying them was against the law? Do you also accept that your earlier statement that you were unaware that these interns were even working on the series at the time was untrue?

4) Does X Factor intend to pay all its interns / work experience people at least the national minimum wage from now on?

5) Is Simon Cowell aware that these payments have been made?

I very much look forward to hearing from you.

With thanks


This was X Factor’s reply:

To: Graduate Fog
From: X Factor / Talkback Thames
Date: Saturday 26 May 2012, 9.36am
Subject: Re: Pay-out for X Factor interns

Dear Tanya

This matter was dealt with last year and [we] have no further comment on the issue.

Caren Davies
Head of Publicity – The X Factor & Britain’s Got Talent

Seriously, that was it. No apology? We think one would have been nice, especially after X Factor publicly denied that these hard-working interns even existed, which is pretty insulting.

But perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whatever led X Factor to make this payout – and however begrudgingly they did so – this is a major victory for interns everywhere. We think this – and the payouts from Arcadia we reported last week – are likely to be the start of a flood of claims from former interns demanding the wages they are owed. Even if they agreed to work for free at the time and the internship finished some time ago, most interns are still entitled to full back-pay.

Interns Fight for Justice – the new campaign we are running in partnership with Intern Aware – is stepping up the pressure further. We have already heard from several interns who are keen to take legal action against their VERY high profile former employers. If you’ve done an unpaid (or very low paid) internship for a well-known brand (or an MP or celebrity), drop us a line and we’ll help you claim the money you deserve. The campaign for a fair deal for young workers is rapidly gaining pace. Get involved.

…and then denying that they even existed? Why do you think X Factor paid their interns in the end – bad publicity, pressure from Bectu or were they told to by HMRC? Do you hope there will be more victories like this, with interns claiming back pay for the wages they should have been paid at the time? When interns start doing that, will employers finally sit up and take interns seriously?


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