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Unpaid Internships: a boon or a bane?

By Bill Gllespie & Preeteesh Peetabh Singh

Christopher Daniels knows about Internships.

Daniels is a Red Seal certified chef, worked as an intern in Toronto’s food industry and at 41 years of age, is still unsettled in terms of his career.

Sometimes interns are paid. More often they work for free, hoping the internship will turn into a “real” job or at least give them work experience and a beefed up resume.  But in an a economy still trying to drag itself out of a recession, today’s university and college graduates have it tough.

“I was paid a minimum wage, less than the dishwashers, despite being educated in my field and having five years of directly related experience.” says Daniels “It is not a proud moment when it comes to discuss one’s wage, after volunteering, educating myself, paying thousands to do so, then find out I am still working for minimum wage.”

Even so, according to research conducted by Agata Zeiba, an MA student at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, a staggering 59% of internships in Canada remain unpaid.

Unpaid or not, these days rejecting an internship offer is not an option for most students. An estimated 86% of graduates are willing to work for free. With high unemployment it often seems the only gateway into the job market. To economists the new world of internships, job casualization and unemployment are combining to create a new and worrisome feature of the modern job market – precariousness.

After the economic crash of 2008, many companies viewed internships as a survival tactic which provided them free labour. It has now turned into a long term business tactic, and it won’t be surprising if it becomes a permanent one.

Daniels, who dreamt of becoming a successful, high quality chef in a French restaurant, says Canadian employers have gotten used to free labour and so has he.

“Many leave empty-handed, unpaid: time wasted. Yes we gain experience, but we all still have to pay the bills.” he says. In a large city like Toronto, the competition is fierce, and employers know this.

Despite the fact that internships seem to be the new normal for University and College graduates there are few statistics that define just how wide-spread the practice is.

“We do not know what exactly is happening in the labour market,” says Toronto based lawyer, Andrew Langille. Specific actions can only be taken when we have enough data on unpaid internships in the province or country. Surveys and research need to be conducted on a large scale.”

Talks have been going on for 15 years within the unions on this issue, without any substantial result. Lise Lareau, Vice President of the Canadian Media Guild says that it is tough to strike a balance in providing people with internship opportunities and at the same time not abusing them by not paying.

“Unions in general, do not support unpaid internships,” says Carmel Smyth, National President of the Canadian Media Guild. “We help in sponsoring, raising awareness, speaking publicly, educating people and pushing the government to do something about it. We are very committed to work on the social justice front but if you talk about individual workplace, we cannot do anything with the company we do not represent or that is non-unionized.”

The lack of statistics raises several unanswered questions. How many internships translate into paid employment? What is the length and duration of internships? How does it translate into actual applicable work experience required by the employer for a desired position?

Internships and precarious employment are prominent in cultural sectors too. In many ways that is how it’s always been for artists, writers, actors, musicians, or photographers, most of whom do not get a chance to work full time. Not that that makes life any easier.

They are seasonal or temporary workers with few benefits, lack of collective representation, little or no job security. Bryn McAuley, Actor and ACTRA member for 17 years mentions how her life swings due to the precarious nature of her work, from making $48,000 in good times to $8,000 per year in bad times. The voiceover artist who is an icon for children has to work in a restaurant to sustain her living at times.

For Christopher Daniels, internships turned out to be an unsatisfactory pursuit. He’s come back to school to retrain and look for a second career in finance.

“It’s time to work towards a future that will allow me to support a family. I do not see things changing rapidly and I think that people will have to prepare for a long battle with poverty, before making it to the big leagues. It’s my belief that we need to constantly adapt and evolve, the world is constantly changing. By staying current and even creating a market for a service or product that exists or we create, we will have a future and we will make it ourselves.”

Six rights of an Intern

By Andrew Langille (Lawyer: employment, labour and human rights)

1. Keep hard copies of all   information, emails and documents relating to your internship. Include a copy   of your initial application, job description and any feedback you receive.
2. Keep a daily log of the   hours that you work, including start/end times, breaks and lunch. Document   what duties you perform on an hourly basis.
3. Ask for   any remuneration you do receive (such as an honorarium or travel expenses) to   be in the form of a cheque or direct deposit. Keep copies of all cheques or   transaction records.
4. Keep copies of the  final work product or drafts of what work you are doing.
5. Ask in the   initial interview if you have the potential to become an employee of the   organization.
6. Get advice about   your rights early in the internship from your provincial or territorial   ministry of labour or an employment lawyer.



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