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Are unpaid internships the new normal?

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PREETEESH PEETABH SINGH
The Dialog (George Brown College)

If you don’t get a job after an unpaid internship, you got fucked.

TORONTO (CUP) — Christopher Daniels knows about internships.

Daniels, 41, is a Red Seal certified chef, who worked as an intern in Toronto’s food industry and is still uncertain 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 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,” Daniels said.

“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, a master’s student at Wilfrid Laurier University, 59 per cent 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 per cent 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 realities 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 offering internships as a survival tactic that provided them free labour. It has now turned into a long-term business strategy that threatens to become a permanent one.

Daniels, who dreamt of becoming a successful, high-quality chef in a French restaurant, said 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,” Daniels said.

In a large city like Toronto, the competition is fierce and employers know it.

These is a good likelihood that interns will be reduced to coffee bitch.
Internships seem to be the new normal for university and college graduates, but there are few statistics about how widespread the practice is.

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

Labour unions have been in talks for 15 years but no concrete steps have been taken on this issue yet by any union. Lise Lareau, vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild said that it is tough to strike a balance in providing people with internship opportunities while not abusing them without compensation.

“Unions in general do not support unpaid internships” said Carmel Smyth, national president of the CMG. “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 work place, we cannot do anything with a company which 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 do internships translate into actual applicable work experience required by the employer for a desired position?

Internships and precarious employment is 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.

In these sectors, these employees are seasonal or temporary workers with few benefits, lack of collective representation and little or no job security.

For Daniels, internships turned out to be an unsatisfactory path. He’s returned to school at George Brown College to 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.”


Photo: pameladrew212/Flickr
Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf

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