Backlash against unpaid internships on rise in Canada
OTTAWA—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 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 noted.
“And no one is picked up anyway at the end of the internships,” Smith added.
“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.”
But Geobey said 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 remarked.
“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 quickly was 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 said what used to be entry-level positions paying minimum wage now are 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,” he noted.
An official at the federal Labour Department said 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 e-mail.
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,” she noted.
“You want the experience and you want the reference, and feel you have no other choice but to keep quiet.”