Would you ever agree to work full-time for free? Every year, across Canada, up to 300,000 students and young workers do just that.
Unpaid internships are the grim reality for a generation of young people entering the workforce when youth unemployment is at an all-time high.
In addition, recent news reports of interns meeting their death after coming off lengthy shifts has caused debate as to the legality of the unpaid internships — be it academic or otherwise.
Lisa Hamilton, a recent graduate from Western’s occupational health and safety management program through continuing studies at Western, was indignant when her practicum ended without compensation.
“My internship was at a foundry, machining facility in Stratford,” Hamilton said. “I could not afford to move to Stratford for the course of my practicum, and therefore, had to drive, unpaid, to Stratford to complete my 560-plus hours.”
“However, upon completion, I received a company keychain, and some cake. This was a disappointment, as others in my class received job offers, perks [from their work], or a stipend,” she continued.
Hamilton also said she was blindsided by the $3,000 tuition fee Western expected her to pay after she completed her practicum.
There’s more sinister aspects than just unpaid work — the culture of unpaid internships also has a gendered, raced, and classed element to it, in which already-vulnerable members of society lose out in the job market.
“There’s been research out of the United States that indicates that 77 per cent of unpaid interns are female,” Andrew Langille, a labour lawyer with the Canadian Internship Association, said.
He explained that the industries with a preponderance of unpaid internships included public relations, fashion, radio and television, journalism, social work, teaching, nutrition, nursing, advertising and magazine publishing.
“Those are all mainly female-dominated professions. You don’t see the same level of unpaid internships in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematical oriented fields. Those internships are paid,” Langille said.
Langille viewed unpaid internships as the latest example of systemic discrimination of women in the labour market, citing the historic de-valuation of work done by females.
Young people from historically marginalized groups aren’t getting the same shot at the labour market as the children of the dominant class, in what Langille referred to as a “creeping cultural apartheid.”
“Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, students who are racialized, students who are first or second generation immigrants typically don’t have the same ability to engage in unpaid labour that wealthier students[…] would have,” Langille said.
These students were effectively being blocked from accessing key professions in journalism, law, politics, and public administration.
Colleen Sutherland, the internship coordinator in the student success centre, said that while she believes in the legitimacy of Western’s academic internships, she is concerned about unpaid internships students find on their own that aren’t vetted by the school.
It is this type of internship — one without pay or academic credit — that is illegal under Ontario labour law. Langille estimated there are between 100,000 and 300,000 of these illegal internships happening every year in Canada.
The trend has not gone unnoticed by student groups. Earlier this month, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance released a policy paper urging the provincial government to address the growing problem of unpaid labour.
“Unpaid internships are a concern as many in Ontario aren’t providing students with the high-impact educational experiences they want or deserve,” said Amir Eftekarpour, OUSA president, in a release. “Students are calling on the province to better enforce the Ontario Employment Standards Act to protect them from unfair unpaid work, while also including provisions that support those meaningful, unpaid positions tied to academic study.
Kyle Iannuzzi, vice-president operations with the Canadian Internship Association, explained some of the systemic problems unpaid internships create.
“The issue is that entry-level jobs now become available for the elite, those that can take on free work, as opposed to the person that might deserve the position the most,” Iannuzzi said.
While some students have had positive learning experiences at their internships, the sad reality is that only students who come from money can afford these experiences.
According to Nick Dyer-Witheford, acting dean of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, unpaid internships create a culture where employers in certain fields become accustomed to the free labour provided by students and recent graduates, which fit in to a cost-cutting labour reduction strategy that could damage the economy in the long term.
To add insult to injury, these workers cannot claim this time under their Canadian Pension Plan.
According to Iannuzzi, unpaid interns are unable to file their hours worked into their Canadian Pension Plans, reducing what they could claim down the road. In addition, the Canadian government is losing out on income taxes that unpaid interns do not pay.
Numerous faculties at Western run unpaid internship or practicum programs that students choose to take advantage of before they graduate. One such service is the Faculty of Information and Media Studies internship program, run by Susan Weekes.
Weekes explained that, in her program, the vast majority of available internships are unpaid for academic credit. She explained that she monitored the job descriptions carefully and vetted the number of hours required to be completed by the intern.
“Our goal is not to have students overworked, our goal is to have them doing mostly professional things,” Weekes said.
“It’s a sad reality for students in this business that the culture is such that they don’t get paid. But on the other hand I believe that they do get opportunities that they wouldn’t have had otherwise and they get credit for it,” Weekes continued.
She stressed that her department strives to find mutually beneficial placements, and when that is achieved it benefits both the student and the employer, and is a much more beneficial relationship than someone working for free.
Shannon Cross, a fourth-year MIT student, said she learned a lot while working at her public relations internship she set up through FIMS last year.
“I thought it was a good experience to be able to work in the [London] community,” Cross said. “I learned a lot of communication skills.”
Although internships aren’t always negative, Langille thought students deserved to be paid even for the labour they complete as part of an academic program.
“The best practices are from the University of Waterloo, which has a very strong co-op program. The vast majority of their co-op positions are paid. They’ve been doing this for close to 50 years. If they have adopted using mostly paid positions, I think that’s the model that schools should adhere to,” Langille said.
For unpaid workers being exploited, there are legal methods to demand pay.
Iannuzzi explained one of the things his organization advocates for is that people in illegal internship situations file claims for their back-wages.
Iannuzzi himself first got involved with the Canadian Intern Association when he had one of the first successful cases reclaiming his wages.
“I was hired and signed a contract that I would be an unpaid intern, or volunteer, for a six-month period. Three months in to the internship I realized I felt like I was being exploited — I was doing things that were outside the job description I applied to — and wasn’t really getting any learning in return from the employer,” he explained.
“I spoke to [my employer] about it and said ‘I don’t think I’m focused on what we said I would be focused on. This is fine, I don’t mind doing it, but if you want me to do that I need to get paid. Otherwise you need to refocus me or we go our own way, and if we do that I’m going to ask that you pay me for the work that I’ve done,” Iannuzzi continued.
Iannuzzi’s employer elected to sever the relationship, and their lawyer determined nothing substantial was found in Iannuzzi’s claim.
However, when Iannuzzi sent an unpaid wages claim to Employment Standards Ontario, they agreed that he should be paid and he received his retroactive pay.
“I don’t think this is a lazy generation,” Iannuzzi said. “This is a generation that’s saying, ‘Not only do we want to work, but we’re also empowered to speak up for ourselves.’”