The Hidden Workforce Behind Lockdown Fashion Shoots

The fashion industry has long been a site of exploitation, with fast-fashion supply chains relying on cheap out-sourced labour for production and harmful stereotypes about women’s bodies running rife in the pages of glossy magazines. Free labour is intrinsic to the ecosystem of a fashion shoot. Yet the continued use of unpaid labour during the Covid-19 pandemic within the fashion industry bolsters the salaries of key industry figures at the expense of young fashion hopefuls. Far from dismantling these exploitative practices, the pandemic has revealed a deep polarisation within the fashion community and the continuation of the archaic ‘rite of passage’ ritualisation attributed to unpaid internships.

At the centre of this issue is the Facebook group Assistant Stylists, which provides an unregulated channel through which potential employers can advertise job roles, aimed at freelancers and interns looking to pick up work on an ad-hoc basis. What has emerged is a culture of one-off unpaid jobs that only benefit the employers hiding behind the assistants advertising the roles. A common post might read “Looking for interns for an upcoming Editorial shoot with a top magazine, DM if available and interested xx”. Both the message and the nature of the role are informal, generally agreed upon privately without a contract or, in many cases, without any prior meeting. The work is almost exclusively concerned with picking up items of clothing from stores and offices to be delivered to the sets of fashion shoots, often involving paperwork and, of course, lugging a multitude of suitcases filled with clothes around the capital. Having completed several of these ‘internships’ myself I can attest to the fact that it is long, arduous and painfully unfulfilling work that grants almost no reward.

Such work suits the fast-pace nature of the industry and the continual need for more hands-on deck, yet the lack of remuneration begs the question of what’s in it for the interns. Whilst generally internships exist to propel inexperienced workers into their desired industry, taking up jobs on an ad-hoc basis means that there is little room for establishing a working relationship with superiors or gaining credits on the masthead of a magazine. In an industry that is severely oversubscribed to, such work is sold as a viable means of making a name for yourself and attaining a steady job at a later date.

In a distant time before the days of lockdown and the ubiquitous impact of the pandemic had set in these roles may have been described as exploitative, if not harmful. However, with the dawn of a new age of restrictions comes news responsibilities and rules, and the out-right danger of being exposed to multiple groups of people at a time. The British Fashion Council, who have been engaging directly with the government in order to monitor Covid-19 updates, have detailed stringent guidelines on how fashion shoots can reduce the risk of infection. The ability to provide PPE comes as one of many requirements to ensure the safety of employees, alongside ensuring that all equipment and props have been cleaned and all employees have declared their movements within the last four weeks.

The BFC writes that “The client, if a paid shoot, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the following guidelines have been adhered to”. Limiting these requirements to shoots which are paid creates an imbalance between companies that can afford to pay their employees and those that cannot. For smaller companies, the pressure is on to keep producing content throughout the pandemic, despite the inability to do so in a safe and legal manner.

With free pre-production and post-production assistance still being outsourced on groups such as Assistant Stylists there is little accountability for individual’s safety, with no obligation to provide PPE for interns who are travelling to multiple different locations to pick up items of clothing as they are not registered employees. Using interns in this manner is likely to spread the virus and compromise the safety of the individual and the many others they come into contact with.

This problem overwhelmingly impacts young women, a demographic already hit hardest by the decline of the high-street and the rise of unemployment due to the pandemic. The devastating impact of Covid-19 on the UK’s economy has led to a lack of paid opportunities for work, making young women more likely to engage in exploitative internships in the hopes of getting ahead. Unfortunately, as with all unpaid work, this widens the divide between those with enough financial security to work for free and those that don’t, contributing to the elitism that plagues the industry. Whilst the introduction of laws against unpaid internships longer than four weeks have been debated in parliament on numerous occasions, uptake on the issue has been slow and awareness of rights within young people still remains low. For the moment at least, unpaid internships will retain their stronghold on the industry, yet there is a responsibility for employers to consider the danger of using interns whilst the UK remains within the grips of a pandemic.