Robyn Benson, PSAC

"Cheap labour? When I was a kid...


…I wasn’t paid for my work at all!” One imagines, into the not-so-distant future, today’s youth telling stories like that to disbelieving youngsters of their own. Welcome to the “unpaid intern” racket.

Between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians now work as unpaid interns. It’s impossible to be more precise, because much of this happens well below the radar. But every now and again, the public gets a whiff of what this is all about. A snazzy hotel wants grunt-work done? Take on—heavens no, not “hire”—an intern. Want to stop paying your staff? Replace them with unpaid interns, as Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Rod Jackson did. (Not true, says Jackson. They’re “volunteers.” If there’s a practical difference here, though, I can’t see it.)

This wasn’t meant to happen. Internships were supposed to be a way of offering on-site training, mostly to young people, getting them job-ready. It was value-added for the intern, and supposedly provided little or no tangible benefit to the employer.

But of course it didn’t work out that way. Instead, for far too many people, it’s become a system of less-than-voluntary servitude. The stick is high youth unemployment. The carrot is future employment down the road, with all that table-cleaning training. And you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Is this even legal? Well, sort of. It’s a grey area: the law across the land is less than clear. The Ontario Employment Standards Act allows it, for example, but with strict limitations. Interns can’t displace regular employees, or do the same kind of work as they do. Employers are not supposed to derive a monetary benefit, and aren’t permitted to offer the interns the incentive of a job at the end of their internship period. Otherwise, those interns would legally be employees in training, with the same rights to wages and benefits as other employees.

But this growing trend—even the federal government makes use of interns—is unregulated and uninspected. There are no legal penalties for exploiting interns? And there’s a virtually inexhaustible supply of hungry young graduates who will jump at even the remotest chance to land a real job someday. It’s as though employers have discovered the human resources version of the Horn of Plenty.

Some interns are fighting back, but at this point they’re more or less on their own. This may change: a non-profit organization called the Canadian Intern Association, launched by law student Claire Seaborn, advocates against unpaid internships and misused paid ones, and NDP MP Andrew Cash is about to introduce a Private Members Bill seeking a coherent approach to the internship problem across Canada.

But problem it remains. Make no mistake—employers presently feel free to use interns in any capacity they wish, even filling in for regular employees when they are off work, or making them work overtime, to the danger-point. The young man who died recently in a car-crash after working hours of overtime on a “practicum,” assigned by his college as a diploma requirement, had been told by his boss that he wouldn’t graduate if he didn’t comply.

This unpaid labour is only a part of the fast-growing “precarious work” syndrome that has become a key and growing element of our current economy. According to a study done earlier this year, for example, half of all adult workers in the Toronto-Hamilton area are working full or part-time with no benefits or job security, or in term or casual employment. This kind of work has increased by 50% in the last two decades, negatively affecting families and communities. And there’s no sign that this trend is slowing.

The free labour of interns is just one component of this. Labour lawyer Andrew Langille points out that internships are replacing entry-level positions, resulting in young people working for years in unpaid employment. In his words, “exploitation of unpaid interns has reached epidemic levels.”

To be blunt, unpaid internship is a lousy idea from the get-go. Employers don’t bring interns on board out of the goodness of their hearts: they almost invariably do so to get free productive labour out of them. They are presently able to prey unimpeded on a young and vulnerable segment of the workforce, who often feel they have no choice but to work for free in hopes that somewhere down the line they might land a real, honest-to-goodness job. You know, one of those old-fashioned ones where they actually pay you.

You want interns? Pay ‘em. There’s a thought. And it ought to be the law.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on September 20, 2013 8:35 AM.

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