H&M and OCAD contest exploits students

But contest does pay off in public exposure and gift cards

H&M and OCAD University recently announced a “Toronto Loves Fashion! Fashion Loves Toronto!” competition for students. The scheme solicits digital paintings from students on spec – with zero pay – for the chance to be one of up to eight winners whose work will appear on temporary construction hoarding at the Eaton Centre H&M Toronto flagship.

This would usually be an enviable corporate job with a significant paycheck attached. After all, according to Forbes, H&M rakes in over $20 billion in sales a year.

So what do the lucky winners get? Another a big fat zero when it comes to cold hard cash that can actually pay for things like tuition, rent and food. Instead, the multinational giant offers each winner a $500 dollar gift card, an “exclusive invitation” to the flagship’s relaunch event and “lots of public exposure.”

The agreement students must to sign to enter the competition grants H&M ownership of the winning artwork produced for the contest and the right to copy and/or reproduce the artwork for the purposes of promotion and internal use. Students will otherwise retain their copyright and moral rights.

The whole thing is a pretty sweet deal for the retailer who, rather ironically, trumpets its “H&M roadmap to a fair living wage” for textile workers quite frequently in the press. It’s hard to trust the company will stand up for workers’ rights in far-off countries like Bangladesh when it’s still engaged in exploitative practices right in front of our noses.

The design community looks down on speculative work and work without pay (some free clothes and a glass of wine at a party don’t count) for good reason. Canada’s national body for graphic and communication designers, Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), prohibits the practice in its code of ethics: “It propagates the notion that designers enjoy and embrace opportunities to work for free. A design is a designer’s intellectual product and is worth appropriate compensation. Designers who engage in spec work erode the industry for future designers.”

Not only is this competition unfair to student artists, it devalues the work of all professional artists. Sadly, it’s not such a surprise coming from H&M – a company with a long history of labour issues. What’s most surprising is that OCAD is promoting a project that so sorely mistreats its students and harms their future chances at making a living wage in the world of art and design.

Update (April 20): This article has been updated after OCAD clarified the terms of the artist contract. 

sabrinam@nowtoronto.com | @sabrinamaddeaux

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