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Backlash against unpaid internships growing in Canada, called 'exploitation'

Toronto New Democrat MP behind crack down bill

Nicholas Smith is a 22-year-old Torontonian, working on his second unpaid internship after graduating from the University of Toronto last year with an ethics degree.

Working without pay for months, and sometimes years, after graduating triumphantly wasn't exactly what Smith and his friends had in mind when they toiled away along the path to what they believed was a bright future.

"I am working with people who've done their masters degrees, and definitely there's an emotional toll in having to work for free," said Smith, whose current unpaid internship is at a Toronto-based think-tank as a foreign policy analyst.

"I used to do marketing and there are a couple of marketing companies that are absolutely notorious, they have marketing graduates working 50-hour weeks and overtime without pay, and if you refuse to work the OT you don't get a reference," he said.

"And no one is picked up anyway at the end of the internships. It's just exploitation."

Unpaid internships are on the rise in Canada, with some organizations estimating there's as many as 300,000 people currently working for free at some of the country's biggest, and wealthiest, corporations.

The ranks of unpaid interns swelled in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, said Sean Geobey, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the author of a recent report entitled The Young and the Jobless.

Geobey says Canadians are starting to sit up and take notice.

"This is not the sort of social contract that today's kids saw their parents and grandparents grow up under," he said.

"We're starting to see Canadians , young people and their parents in particular _ seriously question what exactly is going on here, and why are we apparently returning to 19th-century labour practices.''

Last fall, Vancouver's Fairmont Waterfront Hotel sparked an uproar after it posted an ad seeking people to bus tables for free.

"As a busperson you will take pride in the integral role you play in supporting your food and beverage colleagues and 'setting the stage' for a truly memorable meal." The ad was quickly taken down amid a social-media furor.

The United States is in the midst of a crackdown on unpaid internships by both state and federal authorities. In Canada, there's a growing backlash, with a rally held last week in Toronto urging the Ontario government to do something about "unpaid internship scams."

Federally, the NDP's Andrew Cash tabled a private member's bill last fall aimed at cracking down on what he calls "the Wild West" of illegal unpaid internships. He says what used to be entry-level positions paying minimum wage are now routinely morphing into unpaid internships.

"There's a hodgepodge of laws across the country and in some provinces there's simply no regulation at all," Cash said in a recent interview.

"And not only are we talking about young university graduates having to work for free, but also newcomers to the country who are desperate for Canadian work experience and are resorting to working without pay."

An official at the federal Labour Department says there are laws on the books to protect interns. Under the Canada Labour Code, a department inspector will investigate a federally regulated employer if a complaint is filed for unpaid wages, overtime and vacation pay.

"If it's determined an employer-employee relationship exists between interns and the employer, their rights will be protected as an employee," the official said in a recent email.

Nonetheless two academics working on a comprehensive study of unpaid internships in Canada scoff at those laws, pointing out that they require a young employee who's trying desperately to establish a career to rat out a possibly powerful corporation, and potential employer.

"There aren't enough people coming forward, because there's a huge disincentive to do that,'' said Isabelle Couture, a graduate student who's conducting a survey of unpaid interns with the Canadian Intern Association to determine the scope of the problem in Canada.

"To go against your employer, you're fearing being blacklisted. You want the experience and you want the reference and feel you have no other choice but to keep quiet."

Couture and her partner in the research, James Attfield, say that as they prepare to release their study next month, they've been stunned to learn that no federal or provincial agency is tracking unpaid internships.

"When you ask a lot of these companies, like Bell, which has a massive internship program, they make it sound like they're doing people a favour, that they're generously providing work and experience," says Attfield.

"But it's really nothing more than a way to save money; they're obviously not doing it out of generosity."

Bell Media is the parent company of Newstalk 1010.

A Bell spokeswoman says its internship program, which employs about 300 people a year, "offers learning opportunities in a real-world corporate setting. None of the participants' activities replace work by Bell employees or support our business operations."

But Attfield and Couture, who are both working toward master's degrees in public administration, point out that unpaid internships pose an array of social and economic problems.

They give the children of well-heeled parents an advantage over those with no one to support them if they want to compete with their peers for valuable CV references by working for free, they say.

They also contribute to youth unemployment rates, and prevent young Canadians from fully participating in Canada's economy.

"It's so short-sighted, because these companies are withholding pay from people who might be able to pay for their goods and services and to contribute economically to society," said Attfield.

"There's a cost to everyone as a result of these internships, to the employees who don't get paid, to their parents, to the economy, at absolutely no cost to the companies."

Geobey says it all represents a startling throwback to another era.

"This is what union organizers faced prior to the First World War. There's the threat of blacklisting, the threat that their skills are not going to be used because the employer will call them troublemakers for wanting to be paid for their work."

Smith, the 22-year-old intern, isn't quite as contemptuous, saying he's grateful for the experience he's currently getting from his unpaid internship.

"I can't say that I've got job prospects, but the networking opportunities have been really helpful."

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  1. William posted on 03/02/2014 04:54 PM
    Let's hurry towards a minimum wage of $14 and see what happens to the numbers of unpaid internships....even with legislation.
  2. Frankie posted on 03/03/2014 09:44 AM
    There are valid arguments for both sides. For an intern it's an opportunity to be in an environment where they can learn and demonstrate their abilities. They usually don't know enough to contribute sufficiently to earn a salary and companies often hire those showing promise.

    On the flip side it can be abused by companies looking for free albeit lower capability work.

    Three months unpaid internship with companies actively looking to hire would seem to be a fair compromise.

    Those that complain it skews towards rich kids should move to a communist country to satisfy their political leanings.
  3. Angry Bill posted on 03/03/2014 10:26 AM
    Just reading the first paragraph, the guy graduated from university... with an ethics degree. And doesn't find work. Um.... duh?

    This example, for me, completely encapsulates what is wrong. For whatever reason, kids are led to believe that they need to have a degree (usually a useless arts degree.. there's a reason why there are jokes out there about arts degrees and toilet paper), in order to land a good job.

    Universities aren't failing kids. Universities are giving the kids exactly what they are paying for... university degrees. Where on that degree does it say that having that piece of paper guarantees you work, or even QUALIFIES you for work? It doesn't. That isn't the job of university degrees. Universities don't train you for jobs. That's what colleges are for. The purpose of universities is to provide you with programs in the arts and sciences for whatever purpose. Self betterment, interest in a subject, whatever. But not job training.

    So, you have a degree in ethics.. and wonder where all the work is. You could pay a fraction of the tuition for university on your electrical certification, and start making close to a 6 figure income. But parents can't stand the shame of having a son or daughter as a blue collar worker. They'd much rather have their kid wearing a suit in a downtown office building, working on a free internship, or for low wages.

    Employers are looking for specific skill sets when they hire for specific positions. University degrees don't give you that. You need specific training in whatever area you would like to work. Everything from accounting to plumbing.

    Kids, don't let your parents railroad you into a useless arts degree. You'll be out a lot of money, and have no job at the end of it. Unless you're not looking for a job out of it, in which case go nuts. Chase your dreams, backpack across Europe, learn Swahili. But eventually you'll need to choose a career. And the odds are, you'll need specific training to get into that career that your university degree did not cover.
    1. Karl Burgin posted on 03/03/2014 11:22 AM
      @Angry Bill ...not to mention universities don't help you find jobs either. The give you piles of pamphlets and magazines promoting networking. That doesn't help anybody.
      In my last year and a half, I visited the career centre every other day looking for a possible career, because of the gnawing fear in my stomach its going to be an uphill battle finding work after graduation. Surprise, surprise there...

      My wife went to college and found a job (thanks to the college) with barely any effort.

      And I do beg to differ about Universities failing kids- because they are.
      There were also a few times I asked my professors about finding a good job after finishing my degree (I was in a specialist program for media at U of T/Sheridan), and it was all smiles and thumbs up from them.

      The work I do now is luckily based off of computer services and knowledge I trained myself when I was younger- and luckily I'm able to make a career out of that.
      There is virtually nothing I've learned from university (other than critiquing media which I apply on these forums) that I use in any real-world setting. And much of it is obsolete now. For example, during my time I learned how to create, use and apply Flash. Well guess what? No one uses that anymore- and it's a rapidly dying trend. Because everyone is moving over to HTML5- a subject that wasn't even around when I was in school.

      Even with proper research, kids don't know better, and the parents who've never went post-secondary don't know better either.
      I'm sorry to say it, but its a more of a money-making scheme all around, than the worst scammers you'd find online.
  4. Karl Burgin posted on 03/03/2014 11:10 AM
    From someone who is especially close to this, I feel for the guy with the ethics degree. And the people actually at fault here are the high-school counsellors, and the ones on campus marketing their brand.

    In short, I would never send my kid to university, unless they were actually serious about it, and had a game-plan. The more realistic oath to take would either be college education with an internship/placement- or go for a certification (Mircosoft, Cisco, Plumbing, Carpentry...). Heck, pick your choice, but any certification would be more worthwhile, less of a heart-ache at the end of it all, and the job search wouldn't be such a struggle.

    A degree, you can always revisit once you have the money, and your life is stable. To dump all your money into a tuition for 5 years, and then TRY to work, to pay it all off before you see the benefits, is doing things ass-backwards. And the only ones reaping the rewards off the students, are the likes of OSAP, the banks with their loans and the university.
    The university would've gotten paid up front- so they got their money. The banks will offer you loans, or a line of credit- and get their money back on interests off the loan.
    And OSAP is the worst offender of all. They will hound students for YEARS. The interest rates are ridiculous- and not even bankruptcy will get rid of them.

    You want to see this problem go away? Stop marketing to high-school kids who are about to graduate, pipe dreams of going to and succeeding in university. Those kids have very little real-life experience to help gauge their judgement. And parents are also bamboozled because not many have the experience of going through the experience.
    It's all a viscious cycle- of which Mr. McGuinty was supposed to step in and help fix. Oh, I forgot. He was too busy paying off companies billions of dollars to save his skin.
    UGH!!!!!!!
    1. Karl Burgin posted on 03/03/2014 11:11 AM
      @Karl Burgin *correction:
      oath= path (...the more realistic PATH to take would be either...)
    2. Angry Bill posted on 03/03/2014 12:59 PM
      @Karl Burgin Here's where a university education is beneficial for most kids. 5 or 10 years after you are in a job, and you want to be considered for management. They will see you have a degree, and would be willing to proceed with you over another management candidate who doesn't have a degree. That's about it.

      Otherwise, universities are for those who want to spend the rest of their lives in academia because they can't handle the real world, and all their years of schooling has only taught them to remain in school.

      Or you want to work at another institute where a degree in astrophysics and advanced mathematics is required. Those sorts of things. But be prepared for some stiff competition to get into those sorts of places.. Very few of those spots are available, and are sought after by every other kid who has spent the last several years in school getting their B.Sc., then Masters, then Ph.D. They keep going back to school for more degrees, because there's nothing in the outside world they can do.

      I have a B.Sc. However, I didn't go to a "traditional" university for their computer science program. I went to DeVry, which was a private technical institute. Yes, they covered all the subjects typically covered in B.Sc. programs, but their focus was on business and technology, and not so much the theoretical. So it was more like a college in that respect. And even then, it was difficult finding work afterwards, though they did work for 6 months after graduation to find interviews for you. Varying degrees of success from that, though.

      Bottom line, I would do a lot of things a lot differently if I could go back and do everything all over again knowing what I know now. I'd save tens of thousands of dollars, that's for sure.
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