Reform Unpaid Internships Now!

By Dan Darrah

The internship, especially with the rise of the so-called “knowledge economy” since the 1980s, has become an unavoidable part of the college- and university-age experience for many young Canadians. For good reason, too: internships offer students practical on-the-job experience in many of the fields they will one day work in. They offer students a footholds into their industry, with opportunities to network, develop relationships, cultivate skills, and oftentimes end with an important letter of reference and resume material. unpaid-internships-300x222

This has coincided with the changing culture of capitalism, with internships being conceptualized as a millennial rite-of-passage to the new world of work. Popularized by (imaginatively named) films like The Intern and The Internship, workplaces are illustrated as youthful, vibrant, flexible, tech-driven utopias where gainful employment – after paying your dues – is just around the corner. “Paying your dues” is further reinforced by cultural stereotypes that conceptualize millennials as lazy – the antidote being taking an unpaid internship and proving you have what it takes. For some, this works out: gainful employment can be attained.

But for many others, it doesn’t. The internship system in Canada has developed a problematic underbelly that is punishing the poor. Many internships are unpaid, a situation quickly becoming the norm, with somewhere between 100,000-300,000 unpaid interns at any given time. While this may not be immediately alarming for some, the implications on the labour market are severe.

For one, unpaid internships are driving inequality of opportunity. Many students and young workers are simply financially unable to take on unpaid internships due to the strain on time and resources they entail. Without the robust support of parents/guardians, scholarships or lines of support, many young people are systemically excluded from the opportunity to intern.

Obviously, this situation gives the socioeconomically privileged students an unfair advantage; Mike Moffett of Canadian Business comments in Macleans, “if working as an intern is resume enhancing, then lower income kids are disadvantaged in the labour market,” leaving out “talented low-income people” from good work. Said plainly: if you’re not rich enough to work for free, you’re left out. This has the added impact of excluding marginalized communities from politics, law, and business, further chipping away at their political power and ability to occupy places of power.

Moreover, a very Marxist image of a reserve army of labour is spurred by unpaid internships. An oversupply of labour – now that people will literally work for free – drives down wages for paid workers, and can ultimately lead to dismissal. While changes proposed to the Canada Labour Code by the federal Liberals aim to stop the replacement of paid positions, advocates like the Canadian Intern Association (CIA) argued that they are “overbroad, unclear and inadequate,” enabling companies to “cycle through interns indefinitely for free labour instead of providing paid positions.”

This speaks additionally to the nature of the labour of unpaid interns: many are taking on roles and responsibilities that are worthy of pay, leading to all the negative impacts of work – like stress and anxiety – with few of the benefits. The problem has gotten even more troubling as news surfaced that an unpaid intern at the Bank of America literally died from overworking.

Writing on his blog youthandwork.ca, Toronto-based labour lawyer and CIA executive member Andrew Langille argues that unpaid internships have a wider demographic impact, as well, with economic impacts in “household formation, house purchasing, birthrate, boomerang kids. “The rapid ascent of intern culture in Canada,” Langille writes, “isn’t a particularly good development for anyone except employers who are obtaining a lot of free labour.”

Such a development fits in neatly with the neoliberal labour market, in which low-wage (and apparently no-wage), non-unionized, no-benefits jobs are becoming the norm, while corporations simultaneously merge, concentrate their wealth, move capital overseas to countries with little-to-no labour laws, and above all: profit. Moreover, the public withdrawal from funding post-secondary education, attrition killing jobs and austerity shrinking the public sector creates a patterned problem for young people looking for work: graduating with mortgage-sized debts with weak employment prospects makes internships almost a necessity, driven by anxiety and desperation.

While the argument can – and has – been made that many employers in “creative” sectors have less of a capacity to pay their workers, some of Canada’s largest corporations are taking on unpaid interns, like Bell Mobility, Roots, Wind Mobile, and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. After tremendous public criticism, Bell Mobility shut down their unpaid internship program when an intern charged that the “internship had no educational value and that she was doing the same work as a paid employee.” The CIA has created a “Wall of Shame,” featuring Canadian Football League (CFL), The Hill Times, Rogers, Big Tree Capital Partners, IMAX, and the United Nations.

Worse even is that many unpaid internships are not translating into paid positions. Despite a serious inability to collect info – with the public unable to get the full story of unpaid internships in Canada – much available data demonstrates that unpaid internships lead to paid positions much less frequently than paid ones. In the United States, a study found that 63.1% of students who did paid internships received job offers, while 37% doing unpaid internships received job offers (only 1.8% more than not students not doing an internship at all).

The excesses of this system beg the question: how are they legal?

The simple answer is that they’re mostly not. In Ontario, there is specific criteria – six conditions in the Employment Standards Act (ESA) – that must be met for employers to have an unpaid intern, but as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reports, “[provincial] legislation varies widely and is often too vague to enforce,” and is “generally complaint-driven, so it is under-enforced.” In a Ministry of Labour employer inspection blitz, it was found that almost 42% of 56 businesses in the Greater Toronto Area with internships were breaking the law. Many did not meet the six conditions and thus owed interns back pay and vacation time. But the holes in the Employment Standards Act in protecting interns enable employers further, with a new growing trend: classifying interns and employees as “volunteers.” unpaid_intern

As Ontario undergoes the Changing Workplaces Review, assessing what work looks like in the sharing economy, reform could very much be on the table. The CIA has offered suggestions for reform, such as eliminating Subsection 1(2) of the ESA, which, as they argue, was “extremely poorly conceived, is possibly not compliant with the Charter, and has essentially permitted unpaid labour to flourish in Ontario’s labour market.” Additionally the CIA suggests adding basic workplace protections for interns like setting maximum working hours and strengthening enforcement of the ESA.

Some advocates even go so far as to argue for total abolition of unpaid internships. Regardless of the type of reform, the dangers of continuing on the current path are becoming clearer. It’s an unsustainable model that needs immediate action. Reforming internships can be a springboard to start to roll back other neoliberal changes to the labour market and working conditions.

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