America first fell in love with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen nearly three decades ago, through the role they shared as Michelle Tanner on the ABC sitcom "Full House." In an effort to circumvent strict child labor laws which set limits on how long a child actor may work, the fraternal twins took turns playing Michelle. They began their career in showbiz at only 6 months old.
Over the years, we watched Mary-Kate and Ashley grow from adorable toddlers into talented tweens and eventually into wildly successful young entrepreneurs. Through their company, Dualstar, the Olsens joined the ranks of the wealthiest women in the entertainment industry at a very young age.
Although Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have lived in the spotlight their entire lives, they have recently garnered a new kind of attention. Despite their billion-dollar empire, the twins have neglected to pay their interns and are now being sued.
A class-action lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges the Olsens failed to pay 40 past and present interns. The lead plaintiff in the case, former design intern Shahista Lalani, claims she worked 50-hour weeks under horrible conditions and was offered neither pay nor college credit in return.
The Parsons New School for Design grad worked for the twins’ Dualstar Entertainment Group in 2012 under the head technical designer for the Olsens’ fashion label, The Row. According to reports filed with the court, Lalani worked 50-hour weeks, “inputting data into spreadsheets, making tech sheets, running personal errands for paid employees, organizing materials, photocopying, sewing and pattern cutting, among other related duties,” she told Page Six last week.
Lalani claims that she was even hospitalized for dehydration because of the job’s demands. “It was like 100 degrees outside. I’d just be sweating to death. I probably carried like 50 pounds worth of trench coats to Row factories.” (Click here to read Lalani's full interview with Page Six.)
The lawsuit claims that there were many other interns in Lalani’s position, and they should have been paid the minimum wage plus overtime because they were doing the same type of jobs as the paid colleagues without receiving academic or vocational credit.
Although Lalani never worked directly for the Olsens, she mentioned that she saw them occasionally at meetings and liked them. “They’re really nice people,” she said. “They were never mean to anyone. They’re business people.”
The Olsens’ Dualstar Entertainment Group is not the only wage-theft culprit. This case is the latest in a string of unpaid intern lawsuits. Similar claims have been made against companies such as Conde Nast, Hearst, NBC Universal, Viacom, Warner Music Group and Elite Model Management. Many advocates in the emerging intern labor rights movement believe that these internships violate state and federal minimum wage laws.
Internships of this kind have long been a staple in the media, fashion and entertainment industries. They are traditionally seen as a rite of passage, similar to hazing by a sorority or fraternity. The idea of toiling away day after day, doing menial tasks for a surly employer, is straight off the pages of "The Devil Wears Prada" script.
However, the idea of slaving away and compromising your integrity in an effort to join the ranks of the wealthy elite is pure fiction for most. In reality, these internships are simply exploitative. They are a way for companies to get their hands on free labor. These are companies that could very easily pay their interns a minimum wage and yet refuse to do so.
But there is also another group who is hurt by unpaid internships even more than the interns themselves: Anyone who cannot afford to do work for no pay. “It’s appalling to see unpaid internships continue to reign in fields like media, fashion and entertainment, where diversity is so desperately lacking and internships still act as a main pipeline for jobs,” Jessica Goldstein pointed out in this Think Progress article.
“We may not even know how many people are opting not even to apply because they see that the internship is unpaid, and they just self-select out of the application process because they know they can’t afford to work without compensation,” David Yamada, law professor and founding director of the New Workplace Institute, told Think Progress. “And when you dig deeper, there may be racial and ethnic impact, in terms of groups that generally have more socioeconomic challenges.”
The fact that former interns like Lalani feel emboldened enough to voice their objections to working without compensation is what is fueling the intern labor rights movement. If these lawsuits establish the legal precedent that they’re seeking, the landscape will change. Companies like Conde Nast have already eliminated their internship programs entirely. Perhaps Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen will be next.
Image credit: Flickr/David Shankbone
Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.