Quebec students launch week-long protest against unpaid internships

More than 54,000 Quebec CEGEP and university students walked out of class and away from their internships Monday, and many will stay out for the rest of the week.

Education minister calls protests 'premature' as newly elected government already dealing with issue

Students from the CEGEP Vieux-Montréal are among those on striking this week to protest against unpaid internships. (Radio-Canada)

More than 54,000 university and CEGEP students across Quebec ditched class and their internships Monday morning — walking out in protest against unpaid internships.

While the protest is provincewide, most of the participating student associations are in the Montreal area, including from the Université de Montréal, UQAM, McGill University and four CEGEPs. 

Demonstrations against unpaid internships date back a few years, but this is the first time that so many associations have teamed up for such a large-scale, week-long protest.

In an interview Monday with Radio-Canada, Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge called the walkout "premature." 

"I do not want to tell them what to do," he said. "But it is sincerely premature to launch a big, big mobilization to sensitize the government while we are taking action on the very issue that concerns them."

Roberge said he called on his ministry to study the issue of unpaid internships as soon as he took office last month. 

He said there are clear discrepancies between short-term posts and full-time, unpaid internships, and the department is evaluating the differences as it looks for a solution.

Unpaid hours 'terrifying' for single mom

Jessica Mitchell — a second-year sexology student at UQAM and part of the Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant (CUTE) — says she believes the walkout will have a big impact.

"Students provide a lot of labour for these organizations right now that is usually unpaid, she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

As a single mother and a full-time student trying to make ends meet, Mitchell said adding 20 to 30 hours a week of unpaid work is "terrifying."

It's hard enough as it is, she said, for those with fewer responsibilities.

Protests all week

Many student associations are on strike for the entire week, while others have adopted shorter mandates of one to three days. At UQAM, Mitchell said, every discipline is on strike.

Organizers from the participating student associations are planning a range of activities throughout the week, and a large-scale demonstration is planned for Wednesday, she said.

Protests kicked off at CEGEPS and universities across the province Monday morning. (Radio-Canada)

At McGill University, faculty at the school of social work voted unanimously to cancel classes for the entire week and to hold events and workshops instead.

Social work student Jacqueline Ohayon, a member of the department's student association, told Daybreak students from her department have been excused from internships for the week, as well.

Canadian students take part in some 300,000 internships annually, including 55,000 in Quebec.

No labour-law protection

While some internships in the province do pay a salary, said Ohayon, who works in a community legal clinic, many more do not.

Student internships also aren't recognized under Quebec's labour law, she said, and that means student interns are subject to whatever conditions supervisors or universities decide to impose.

She said interns often work more hours than required, lightening the workload of their paid colleagues without receiving any remuneration.

This is not a question of forcing non-profit organizations, already strapped for cash, to pay interns a salary, Ohayon said.

Instead, protesters are asking the Quebec government to commit to "redirecting and rethinking investment" in the health and social service sector — sectors, she said, that are largely underfunded to the point of relying on the free labour of internships rather than paying all staff for the hours they work.