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Acceptance breeds exploitation: Unpaid internships in Canada

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It was my first day as an intern at a well-known social media marketing firm in Montreal. The agency represents dozens of popular hotels, bars, and restaurants, and even a few international brands. Naturally, I was excited to learn from such a well-reputed firm. I entered the sleek offices in the Old Port to find seven people my age lined up along a table, hunched over their laptops. Quickly, I learned that all of these people were not paid employees, but interns like myself -- there were only four people on payroll, two of whom were the company’s founders. They had twice the number of interns as paid staff. They still do, and have added more interns as the company grows. 

The work I did at that company was identical to that of one of their few paid employees. I worked twice a week, at around 18 hours, but some of the interns were working full time. None of the interns were offered jobs.

This is a pseudo-business model we are seeing more and more frequently as internship culture grows. Interning has become a necessary first step in virtually all job fields, and it is no secret that companies have long been taking advantage of the high youth unemployment rate by relying heavily on unpaid interns who cannot find paid work right out of university. We all know about these exploitative practices. What is truly shocking is the culture of acceptance and the utter lack of recourse taken by policymakers.

This is perhaps because the federal government are themselves benefitting from unpaid interns. In January, news broke that Parliament used hundreds of unpaid interns and hired only a handful. According to Metronews, interns across 32 federal government departments often worked more than 30-hour weeks, and only 2.3 percent were offered jobs.

But in a rare step forward, NDP MP Laurin Liu tabled a bill in February that would provide protections for interns at the federal level -- Bill C-620, or the Intern Protection Act. If passed, the bill would essentially extend all workplace protection covering regular employees to interns, such as the right to refuse dangerous work and freedom from sexual harassment. The bill would also provide a cap for the number of hours an intern can work unpaid, as well as limit the use of non-educational unpaid internships. 

''Currently, federal labour laws fail to offer even basic protections to unpaid interns,'' says Liu. ''Some of Canada’s largest and more profitable companies are federally regulated, and this bill would provide demonstrable benefits to the intern working in these industries.''

Therein lies one issue with the bill -- it only extends to interns working in federally regulated companies, such as banks, telecommunications, and transportation. This is a good first step, but these interns comprise only a small faction of Canada’s larger intern population.

''What the bill does is provide a strong example for how provincial governments should set out their laws for interns,'' says Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association. The CIA is a national not-for-profit that advocates against the exploitation of interns, and that has been instrumental in drafting the Intern Protection Act.

Currently, unpaid internships are illegal in most provinces, but provincial labour laws protecting interns are poorly enforced. One exception, however, is Ontario -- under pressure from a coalition of groups and student activists, the provincial government was forced to crack down last September. A blitz by provincial authorities found that nearly half of all employers who hosted interns were in violation of the employment standards acts. The results of this investigation were released to the public. Since then, Ontario has been a gold standard for enforcement of intern labour laws at the provincial level.

''Provincial ministries of labour have not put enough money towards the issue. and have not made it a priority for their investigators,'' says Seaborn. ''Other provinces should be following Ontario’s lead.''

We’ve heard it time and time again: youth unemployment is soaring. At 14%, it is almost twice the national average. Now is the time to take action.

''Some companies are taking advantage of desperate youth by replacing entry-level paid positions with unpaid internships,'' says Liu. ''Many of my friends and peers have themselves taken on unpaid internship positions, just to get a foothold in the job market, only to find themselves without a job offer at the end of their internship. Unfortunately, some employers see young workers as simply a source of cheap labour. This needs to change.'' 

Aside from contributing to socio-economic inequality and hindering class mobility -- since some young workers are excluded from unpaid internships because they cannot afford it -- it also contributes to gender inequality.

''There have been studies done in the U.S. that say that most unpaid interns are female,'' says Seaborn. ''In Canada, most of the industries that rely heavily on unpaid interns -- such as nursing, social work, and communications -- are female-dominated.''

Full disclosure: rabble.ca hosts unpaid interns, rabble.ca hosts unpaid editorial interns who work 8-10 hours per week, and are paid a $500 honorarium for each semester completed. I am one of them. My experience with rabble.ca, however, has been nothing but positive, and I have not felt exploited the way I have in previous internships.

''Internships pose an ethical challenge for academia and employers; between learning and work. I think rabble - which is itself in an unusual position as hybrid of volunteer activism and an employer - tries to address the challenges posed by internships transparently and honestly,'' says Michael Stewart, rabble.ca's Blogs editor. ''At rabble.ca we limit the intern’s workweek to 8-10 hours maximum and ensure that our interns have real opportunities to develop as editors and writers, to follow their interests and also work closely with some of the experienced members of our staff.''

While unpaid internships have certainly become an issue for Canadian society at large, the onus should not be put on interns to push for concrete change -- this should be done by policymakers and the organizations that employ interns. Interns should, however, know their rights, and can take steps such as claiming back their pay if they think their internship was in violation of provincial or federal labour laws. The talent and dynamism of young graduates should not be exploited, and no one should be excluded from the labour market. We need to turn a culture of acceptance around so that millennials, my friends and peers, can emerge into a healthy job market that will nurture their talent. 

To find out what you can do to protect your rights as an intern, go to the Canadian Intern Association.


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