Tom Haxwell of the Canadian Intern Association visited UTM last Wednesday to speak with students about internships that take advantage of the intern after an invitation from CCIT professor Nicole Cohen.
Haxwell began by reading the posting for an internship opportunity offered by Roots Canada that required the applicant to write and edit articles for a magazine, create press releases, interview and research, make phone calls, and perform other tasks for five months without pay. In other words, said Haxwell, the intern would perform the same tasks and have the same responsibility as a full-time employee.
The Canadian Intern Association, created in May 2012, posts similar internships online from companies such as Bell Media, Wind Mobile, and Reader’s Digest. In his opinion, national companies fail to pay their interns even though they can afford to due to a lack of legal limitation and the ease of replacing interns.
“We estimate that there are about 100,000 to 300,000 Canadians doing these types of internships across the country,” said Haxwell.
He added that of those thousands, only 37% of unpaid interns led to a paid position with that company, compared to almost twice that percentage for paid interns. This data is from a recent American survey on internships, he said, because these figures aren’t tracked in Canada. “The government had no idea how many people are working these unpaid internships,” said Haxwell.
Provincial laws such as the Ontario Employment Standards Act list some conditions for unpaid internships. Haxwell listed six conditions: the training must be similar to that given in a vocational school; the training must be for the benefit of the intern; the company must derive little benefit from the intern’s activity during the internship; the intern’s work can’t replace that of a paid employee; the intern can’t be promised employment at the company upon completing the internship; and the intern must be advised that there are no wages involved.
Haxwell said that most private sector internships fail to comply. He added that the government has announced funding for 20 Ministry of Labour enforcement officers, but opined that they would be spread thin since they deal with all workplace complaints and not just internships.
Internship postings often require that applicants be current students, a fact Haxwell attributed to another condition (above Ontario law) that states that internships that are part of placements in universities and colleges are “exempt from being paid”. Since such placements are sometimes prerequisites for graduation, said Haxwell, there’s the added danger of employers threatening to report the student to their placement advisor and impeding their graduation.
In a recent newspaper analysis for Cohen’s course, CCIT student Joseph Fernando cited the case of Andrew Ferguson, an Edmonton student whose case Fernando said exemplified the rigorousness of internships. Ferguson was working overtime at a Halloween attraction as part of an unpaid internship through his university in 2011, and was driving home after a 16-hour shift when he fell asleep at the wheel, collided with a truck, and was killed. Ferguson had complained to his employer prior to the incident, but his employer threatened to report that he wasn’t doing his job and he would risk his internship not being recognized by his university.
“We live in a culture that has normalized the notion that young people must work for free to pay their dues,” said Cohen. “Knowing your rights as a young person in the workplace equips students with critical knowledge to try avoid being exploited.”
Haxwell described the CIA procedures for taking legal action regarding illegal internships, including the “Claim Back Your Bay” campaign, which outlines the actions interns should take before, during, and after an internship to maximize their chances of being paid. These steps include keeping records and requesting to be paid minimum wage for overtime work.
Students feel immense pressure to gain experience, said Cohen, but they shouldn’t lower their standards. “You’re doing a degree at a prestigious university. You should be getting paid at least minimum wage,” Haxwell concluded.
Cohen sponsored the event as part of her course “Cool Jobs in Hot Industries? Critical Approaches to Cultural Labour”, which has no prerequisites.
“It’s important to create spaces on campus to talk about this before students are faced with internship-related dilemmas,” she said.