Fighting Unpaid Internships

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By Gerard Di Trolio

Activists opposing unpaid internships rallied in Toronto to call upon Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa to take action on the issue in the next budget.

Organized by Stop Unpaid Internships in Ontario, over twenty protestors stood outside of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Toronto where Sousa was holding a consultation meeting about the upcoming Ontario budget.

Sousa, who was previously Ontario’s Minister of Labour did nothing on the issue. The Ontario government is slowly beginning to address this issue. Labour lawyer Andrew Langille, who spoke at the rally, says the vast majority of unpaid internships in Ontario outside of those for school are illegal.

“To his credit (Ontario Minister of Labour) Yasir Naqvi has done some things on the issue. With Bill 146, he is closing the loophole under the Occupational Health and Safety Act that led to young workers, interns, students, not being protected when they were being engaged in training and educational activities. That’s a start,” said Langille.

The issue is an emerging one acknowledges Langille and he expects it to gain momentum, but enforcement of existing laws remains an issue.

“Ontario has not traditionally had proactive enforcement in employment standards issues,” he said.

“This is a historical problem, not an intern specific problem, but we don’t see any proactive enforcement around unpaid internships. That’s a big issue. People don’t feel comfortable about speaking out about these issues, people fear blacklisting, fear reprisal and it’s a very real threat,” said Langille.

President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union Munib Sajjad said that unpaid internships are a huge problem for students.

“We see many students in the various faculties in their academic field forced into unpaid internships as part of their program. After completing their degree, they’re looking for a job, they have to pay back the debt they’ve accumulated not just from the government but everywhere else. They’re looking for jobs that need experience and are told you can take this unpaid internship,” Sajjad said.

Sajjad points out that university students and recent graduates in Ontario have it particularly tough.

“We as students are already exploited. We have the highest fees in the country, the lowest government funding and our government is institutionalizing that unpaid internships are allowed,” he said.

Unpaid internships have become another source of stress for students already dealing with significant pressures.

“The most used drug at U of T is actually antidepressants, and we know that this comes with the concern of students who are working multiple jobs, and this is something that we have surveyed,” said Sajjad.

Participants in the rally had many tales of the problem of unpaid internships.

“I’m applying to internships because I am almost done my undergrad and I’m finding that they are all unpaid, they’re full time unpaid, and I can’t afford that,” said Edith Wilson.

“It’s my only other option if I don’t get into grad school. No one is hiring for entry level jobs,” said Wilson.

“I’m a graduate of Ryerson’s fashion design program, and I’ve done over 500 hours of free internships,” said Vanessa Heron.

“It’s not all negative experiences, but nonetheless when it’s unpaid there are stresses that are automatically associated with that, and I think it’s unfair especially in a situation like post secondary education internships where you’re basically paying to work,” said Heron.

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