As the summer approaches, all of my friends are looking for work. And this year, like every year, many of us will end up working for free. They’re called unpaid internships and they are increasingly common; a necessary stepping-stone to paid employment.
These internships are particularly prevalent in glamour industries - politics, technology, journalism, fashion - where, to get paid work, months, if not years, of unpaid internships can be required. It seems as if to obtain a paying job in these fields, you must first have contributed significant time as an unpaid labourer. So when the unpaid finally achieve paid status, it only seems natural that those beneath them will, also not be paid. Some will even have to pay for the privilege of working for free. Certain organizations are now auctioning off internships. On charitybuzz.com, a six-week internship at the United Nations has been bid up this week to $22,000. So far, working at Rolling Stone is worth $1,350 and a summer with designer Rebecca Taylor in New York is $1,000. (Proceeds from the auctions go to various charities).
A 2008 study found that 50 per cent of university graduates in the United States had completed internships, up from 17 per cent in 1992. As they become more common, employers increasingly know that a single posting will attract dozens of applicants. Why should they shell out hard-earned cash to pay someone who will do the work for free?
Unpaid internships may be good for an individual young person, and they are certainly good for employers who get free labour – but they are bad for society as a whole.
Unpaid internships skew the job market, so it is the wealthiest, not the most qualified, who are able to apply. To work without pay requires other sources of income, either from parents, or by working at another job. This isn’t just bad for most people who are unable to work for free, it is also bad for employers who are cutting out many qualified applicants whose parents are not wealthy enough to provide support.
A good friend of mine has been working at a consulate in Toronto this year. She’s studying international relations and hopes the experience will help lead to paid employment after graduation. She is screening visa applications and doing most work the paid staff do, just without any compensation. Unfortunately, she quit her job as a bartender to work at the consulate and with money running low, will not be able to return next year.
This kind of story is common. It is not just start ups like HootSuite that hire unpaid labour. It is the government and large corporations who have the resources, just not the willingness, to pay.
Another friend has been hired to work in Edmonton. He’s a business student and is really excited about the opportunity. The only thing is, it’s going to cost all of the money he’s saved working part-time as a teller at BMO to pay to work out west. He hopes that this summer will lead to paid work with the Edmonton firm or serve as a stepping stone to similar work. But he shouldn’t have to wipe out his hard earned savings from one large company to work for another.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour released a fact sheet on the legality of unpaid internships, last updated in April 2013. It lays out six criteria for an unpaid internship to be legal. If all six conditions are not met, then the intern is deemed to be an employee under the Employment Standards Act and, among other things, is entitled to at least minimum wage.
One of the six requirements is the employer not promise paid employment at the end of an internship.
Ironically, this is the No.1 reason why young people sign up for internships. We hope that at the end of the unpaid labour, we will be hired.
Interns, who are young and inexperienced, are disproportionately vulnerable to abusive or exploitive working conditions. An intern is not likely to complain, as that can jeopardize employment in the industry, getting a reference letter, or getting hired by the company itself.
The recent case of Toronto city councilor Ana Bailão perfectly demonstrates the problems with not robustly advertising and enforcing the rules surrounding unpaid internships. Bailão advertised for a summer internship that would include social media outreach, as well as administrative duties. As the ensuing controversy unfolded, it became clear that many employers do not know the rules around offering internship positions.
The existing law is not robustly advertised or enforced. The Ministry of Labour encourages people to phone if there are concerns, but they do not appear to have any active investigative or enforcement mechanisms involving unpaid internships.
Not all internships are bad. As they were originally designed, internships are fantastic opportunities that provide real-world experience as a transition from school to work. I have two friends who hope to work in journalism who completed six-week unpaid internships with a media organization. They felt the work was rewarding real-world experience, and for at least one of them, it has helped lead to paid employment.
Internships allow young people to gain contacts, get reference letters for future employment and, sometimes, learn about the industry they want to enter. For most of my friends though, they don’t learn much at internships. They fetch coffee, photocopy, and sift through data. One friend spent most of her time mopping the floors. It’s the work no one wants to do and many don’t even get paid for it.
Young people looking for work this summer have two options. We can work at job-jobs in the retail, food service and hospitality industries and get paid, or we can take unpaid work in industries where we hope to get paid work in the future.
Some of this unpaid work is illegal, most is immoral, and almost all is damaging to the economy as a whole. There are very specific circumstances wherein young people do not need to be paid to work. Employers who can pay should and the government should investigate unscrupulous employers and enforce existing laws.
A stronger, fairer society would be one in which young people got paid to work, just like everyone else.
Zane Schwartz is one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20. He served as President, Public Board, of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association from 2010 to 2011.
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