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Bruce MacLellan is CEO at Proof Strategies and chair of the Program Advisory Committee of the Bachelor of Public Relations Program at Humber College. Ethan Teclu is a student in the program and a paid intern at Proof.

As Canadians face the fallout from the Canada Student Service Grant controversy and the prospect of a fall election during a global pandemic, hundreds of thousands of students across the country are returning to their studies this week and – through little fault of their own – have nothing to show for their time off this summer.

In recent months, it has become increasingly clear COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate economic toll on many marginalized groups, including women, minorities and now students. Between February and April, 2020, employment among Canadian youth dropped a staggering 34 per cent, with 873,000 jobs wiped out. In June, Statistics Canada pegged the unemployment rate for returning students at 33.1 per cent, compared with 12.7 per cent one year prior.

But the problem is not just related to the pandemic. If employers want to safeguard the future of the Canadian work force, it is time to step up for our students for the long term. And as we reflect on several systemic issues that are fuelling current inequalities, let’s include unpaid student interns on that list. It’s an unfortunate reality that this practice happens all too often in many of our largest corporations and most respected organizations.

While unpaid internships are generally illegal, most provinces allow students to work for free if their placement is tied to a college or university program. The rationale is usually along the lines of “we are doing them a favour” with the experience or that it helps the student meet their graduation requirements. But it is a regrettable decision made by people who often earn large salaries themselves, and decide they can get away with not paying young people for their labour. To illustrate the hypocrisy, where else can a person be held accountable for their workplace performance, but not be provided any monetary compensation?

The problem relates directly to diversity and inclusion as well. In most professions, there is an urgent need to ensure the future members of our work force are fully reflective of our diverse population, and there should be no economic, cultural or other barriers to entry. Unfortunately, many students are forced to choose between their dream job and one that is economically viable, all because some companies will not pay for the required hours of work.

These issues are compounded by the prohibitive costs of education and living expenses – especially in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver – with consequences that fall disproportionately on young Canadians who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour.

At Humber College in Toronto, the Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations' Program Advisory Committee has taken the position that unpaid internships have no place in the public relations profession in Canada and should be eliminated. We believe all employers should pay the minimum wage or the equivalent amount in a lump sum honorarium. Students remain free to pursue other experiences through volunteering with causes they support or hold career interest, but an internship placement for our degree-granting program should be paid.

When compared with the United States and Britain, Canada lags in tolerating unpaid internships. This behaviour creates a significant barrier to entry for students who lack the economic support to be able to work for free. It also reflects an abuse of power by the employer over the student and sends the wrong message to young people. Students preparing themselves to enter the work force acquire negative perceptions before they are even able to graduate. Why would employers make it so difficult to succeed?

Let’s be clear; students are often barely getting by in covering expenses. Some do not have the option to work for free. These students need to earn money to pay the costs of education, rent and other living expenses. No one should be forced to choose between accepting unpaid work to graduate or declining just to stay financially secure – and certainly not during a global pandemic.

Young Canadians need to see the system enables everyone to get an education and pursue the career of their dreams. We advance our society by advancing these young people. Let’s pay them a fair wage.

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