Fighting back against unpaid internships

Erica van Rabenswaay is suing Norma Kamali saying the company violated federal labor laws for her internship. Credit: Bess Adler/Metro
Erica van Rabenswaay is suing Norma Kamali, saying the company violated federal labor laws for her internship.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

After 10-hour days photographing for look books and adding to a website for a fashion designer, Erica van Rabenswaay, 24, started wondering whether she should be paid for her internship.

Van Rabenswaay sued designer Norma Kamali last week, saying the company violated federal labor laws by requiring her to work full-time without any pay for three months this year.

She said she spent sometimes as many as 10 hours a day creating look books, adding photography to the website and creating signs for the store. All this time, her only compensation was a monthly Metrocard, she told Metro.

She took the internship understanding it was unpaid, she said, with the expectation that hard work would lead to paid work.

But instead of employment, mentorship or training, she alleged in the lawsuit, which demands double back wages and attorney’s fees and costs, van Rabenswaay said that what was called an “apprenticeship” was instead just helping Kamali, for free.

“Everything was very sketchy,” the Bronx resident said.

Her court filing is only the beginning — Intern Justice, a group that helps interns sue employers, warns it is the first of their Fair Wage Summer project, which will soon include similar lawsuits.

“Unpaid internships are exploitative, unethical and illegal,” said Maurice Pianko, the founder of Intern Justice.

“Young people think they are getting a toehold in their chosen profession,” he said, but, “many employers are just looking for free labor.”

Ultimately, the designer did hire Van Rabenswaay — for a month, she said, when she was abruptly fired. She soon spotted an advertisement seeking another “apprentice” for the work she had been doing, she said, again offering no pay.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Follow Alison Bowen on Twitter @reporteralison


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