Half of working adults in the GTA hold precarious jobs, according to a recent study, and as young adults we know that better than anyone. Our unemployment rate, at 16.5%, is double that of people above age 24. As more university students and recent grads find that entry-level jobs are frustratingly scarce, many turn to the seemingly brutal but necessary unpaid internship.
Canada and the United States are in the midst of an “intern boom,” writes Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Many students see internships as the de facto way to get a foot into the door of the working world, a fact that’s drilled into one’s head from schools and labour agencies and parents. The recent recession, however, has changed the role of the intern in the modern economy. “Internships used to be paid gigs at blue-chip companies that focused on training and recruitment. It was considered a marker of a good internship program that it hired between 50 and 70 percent of its workers to full-time jobs,” says Perlin. “Today, people sometimes have to do five or six internships in order to land the work they’re ultimately looking for. You also have a number of companies that are freezing future hires or simply replacing their paid employees with interns.”
Internship programs exist in a sort of legal grey area. “It’s an industry term,” says David Doorey, professor of employment law at York. “There seems to be a widely held belief that an employer avoids our basic employment law rules simply by labelling someone an intern. That’s wrong.” The Employment Standards Act lists several rules that govern unpaid internships, but these rules are frequently ignored. “One of the most frequently violated conditions states that the trainee should provide no immediate advantage to his or her employer,” says Perlin. “Whether it means making Xeroxes or writing speeches for senators, interns are always expected to contribute to the bottom line.” Interns lack the employment standards given to paid workers, and there are no rules against exploiting interns. Statistics Canada doesn’t even keep track of unpaid workers, so we have no data about interns in this country. Many interns find themselves sucked into the implicit idea that an internship will lead to a paid position, but this is frequently not the case.
The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail recount some internship horror stories in recent articles. “My experience has been really frustrating,” says Toronto’s Anya Oberdorf, who spent over a year working two unpaid internships, neither of which led to a job. “I can’t afford a third internship, but I don’t want to sit around at home, either.” Dan Dolan had to live at home with his parents after graduation to afford an unpaid internship at an advertising firm, but the experience was 5% working with clients and 95% custodial work, like cleaning the kitchen and taking out the trash.
Then there’s the problem that unpaid internships are only viable for students whose parents can support them. “Unpaid internships may make the fortress accessible, sometimes, sure,” writes journalism student Bethany Horne, about the difficult path to employment in media companies. “But they only make it accessible to some people, the kind of people who are already over-represented inside. Those who can afford to work for free. So the young people who don’t come from the city, and who don’t come from money, are shit-out-of-luck.” She adds, “I am boycotting the system. It’s not that I won’t work for free exclusively on ethical grounds. Practically, I can’t afford it.”
It is the unique desperation of university students and new graduates that employers exploit. Even after paying thousands of dollars for a university education, we are herded into unpaid internships that guarantee no jobs or even relevant experience. Writes Carol Goar, columnist for the Star, “No Canadian politician has taken up their cause. No corporate leader has said it is wrong to take advantage of debt-burdened graduates. No university president has gone to bat for young people trained at his or her institution.”
The intern nation may be great for companies, who are essentially getting free labour, but it’s a stressful, precarious precedent for young university students like us.