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Summer employment

Unpaid interns: working for free Add to ...

Dan Dolan knew he shouldn’t expect a high-paying job right after graduating from Sheridan College’s postgrad advertising program this spring. His fate was clear: living at home with his parents so he could take an unpaid internship at a small firm in Toronto.

“That was something [professors] stressed really hard – that we would not get paid,” says the 23-year-old from Mississauga.

What he didn’t expect was that the job would entail only 5-per-cent work with clients (in line with his education) and 95-per-cent custodial tasks, such as cleaning up the kitchen and taking out the trash.

He ditched the gig after six weeks, accepting a position at a prominent firm that’s given him a taste of the work he’d like to do long term.

Problem is, he’s still not making any cash.

As if shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for postsecondary schooling isn’t enough, an unpaid internship has become a rite of passage for many students, argues Ross Perlin in the recently published exposé Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. He says the United States and Canada are in the midst of an “intern boom.” Some complete them as part of their degree requirements, others take them to gain entry into a competitive field.

It’s difficult to nail down statistics on interns, as “intern” isn’t a title recognized in law. Still, some employment lawyers have taken it on as their cause, citing a growing acceptance of unpaid internships in offices and postsecondary institutions. There’s a clear draw for employers, who use internships as a way to save money and nurture talent. They’re most common in what Mr. Perlin calls the “glamour” industries: media, politics, advertising, marketing and non-profit work, which attract idealistic students who “aren’t in it for the money.”

But these ubiquitous unpaid opportunities face a myriad of criticisms: They exclude students who can’t afford to work without pay. Some companies use them to take advantage of students. And interns, because they receive no pay, have limited rights.

One of Mr. Perlin’s chief critiques of unpaid internships is they are classist. While they may be a stepping stone to gainful employment, students who cannot afford to spend a summer without pay are shut out from such opportunities.

Bethany Horne, 25, is now proudly, and defiantly, turning down such offers.

Because one of her degree requirements for the University of King’s College’s journalism program was to complete an internship, she travelled from Halifax to Toronto last year for placement at an online magazine. She returned with a rich portfolio of stories, but not a cent from the company.

After seeing her peers take on similar opportunities without landing jobs, she took a public stand against unpaid internships last month in an op-ed posted on J-Source.ca, a website run by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

“I am boycotting the system … I won’t support with my free labour a media organization that cuts its legs out from under itself,” she wrote.

This summer, she’s getting work in her field through a few freelance projects, but still believes she’s been shut out from countless jobs because she refuses to do unpaid work.

Arthur Gallant didn’t want to risk that fate so he quit a retail job he’d held for a year and a half to take on an eight-week internship at CTV’s Canada AM. It’s a dream job for the 21-year-old.

On Twitter, the Burlington, Ont., resident began enthusiastically counting down the days to his internship months before it even began. He says the company is doing him a favour by taking him on as an unpaid intern.

“If I don’t get this experience, what’s going to happen? No one’s going to want me,” he says.

By his measure, he’d be making $3,280 before tax if he was paid minimum wage for his labour. Instead, he’s shelling out cash for the opportunity – gas alone for the commute costs about $100 a week.

There are no guarantees of employment once his internship is complete, either.

“I feel in some ways I’m a cat that’s trying to catch a mouse,” he says.

He says he hopes his performance as a producer over the course of the internship will wow his superiors enough to spawn a job offer, which is what happened to a few of his peers.

Because the internship is a diploma requirement for Humber College’s journalism program, he doesn’t expect CTV to pay him.

“Humber is holding my diploma up in the air and saying we’re not giving it to you till you do this.”

Instead of putting employers on the hook, the government should offer subsidies to interns, he says.

In Mr. Perlin’s critical analysis of the unpaid internship circuit, he places blame in part on schools for promoting such opportunities. He cites one survey that found 95 per cent of postsecondary institutions in the United States allowed ads for unpaid internships to be posted on campus.

“They need to be shamed into fulfilling their responsibility and protecting their students,” he says.

Jonathan Nguyen landed his summer stint with a Toronto advertising firm through the internship program at the media and information studies program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

He’ll earn half a credit by the time the gig is done, but no cash.

In keeping with a trend toward millennials living at home with their parents, Mr. Nguyen is staying with his family this summer. Statistics Canada data suggest 31 per cent of Gen-Xers lived with their parents in their 20s, while 51 per cent of Gen-Yers do now. In Mr. Nguyen’s case, he simply can’t afford a place of his own in Toronto without a salary. After two years of university, he’s already $25,000 in debt.

The hour-and-a-half commute costs him another $400 a month, but the firm is covering his transportation expenses.

Some companies offer interns honorariums – sometimes just a few hundred dollars – to reward them for their work. But others avoid any form of compensation as it can be construed as payment that entitles the intern to “employee” status, explains David Doorey, a professor of employment law at Toronto’s York University.

“My sense is that many employers believe simply calling someone an ‘intern’ relieves them of all employment obligations,” he says in an e-mail. In many cases, interns are completing the same work as paid staff – an obvious boon for employers.

In keeping with Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, unless the training program is a degree or diploma requirement, “odds are the ‘intern’ is really an employee” – and thus should be paid, he says.

But Toronto employment lawyer David Ertl says interns fall into a grey zone.

“At the end of the day, interns should be compensated. Whether this is minimum wage, I can’t say,” he says. Some employers could argue that a foot in the door and valuable experience is compensation enough, he says.

Mr. Nguyen says he’d much rather do unpaid work at the ad firm this summer than get paid to do labour that wouldn’t help his long-term career goals.

“I tell my friends who make fun of me and say, ‘Oh I’ll buy you this because you can’t afford it,’ I say, ‘Well … I’m getting paid in the experience. I’m getting paid in knowledge. I’m getting paid in connections.’ ”

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