Unpaid internships exploit 'vulnerable generation'

At least 100,000 young Canadians are working as unpaid interns — with an unknown number of others missing out on key, early work experience because they cannot afford to go without a paycheque.

Estimates suggest 100,000 to 300,000 Canadians work unpaid internships at any given time

About 100,000-300,000 Canadians work as unpaid interns at any given time, according to estimates by student organizations and advocacy groups. (iStockphoto)

At least 100,000 young Canadians are working as unpaid interns  — with an unknown number of others missing out on key, early work experience because they cannot afford to go without a paycheque.

Liberal MP Scott Brison is on a mission to raise awareness of the issue. He's calling on the federal government to measure the scope of the unpaid workforce, identify acceptable unpaid work placements and legislate changes to protect an increasingly "vulnerable generation."

Wealthy kids get 'a leg up'

Brison is all too familiar with stories of talented Canadians missing out on job opportunities early in their careers because they cannot afford to work for free.

Carrie O'Marra, for example, may not be able to receive her radio broadcasting college diploma in October, despite completing all of her coursework.

'I take care of my mom who has Alzheimer's and working for nothing is simply not an option.' —Carrie O'Marra, 48

The 48-year-old mother, saddled with student loan debt and caring for her ailing parent, cannot afford to do unpaid work. Yet her school requires students in her program to complete a 160-hour internship — many of which are not paid.

"I take care of my mom who has Alzheimer's and working for nothing is simply not an option," says O'Marra. "I have an adult life with adult expenses."

Brison says he doesn't want to see this become an issue where, "children of privileged families get a permanent leg up in the workforce and on their career over everyone else."

Carrie O'Marra, 48, says she cannot afford to do a four-week internship required by her school unpaid, and paid internships are hard to come by. (Carrie O'Marra)

But, not all unpaid interns come from upper-class families.

Student organizations and lobbyists estimate between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians work without bringing home a paycheque. Statistics Canada does not track unpaid internships.

(While studying journalism, the author of this article completed a six-week unpaid internship at the CBC during the summer of 2011. Read more about internships at CBC News at the end of this article.)

Some of those hundreds of thousands of interns subsidize their internships by juggling multiple jobs or taking out larger loans.

With a tight job market and heavy demand on youth to accumulate workplace experience, Brison says many young people can feel forced into taking these increasingly available unpaid positions — even if they cannot afford to do so.

Grunt work? Someone needs to do it

O'Marra begrudgingly admits she will have to find a way to make such a one-month gig fit into her life. Still, she wonders if an internship is the best use of her time, having heard horror stories from some of her younger classmates.

"A lot of them just fetch coffee, and photocopy and file," she says, calling the practice "exploitation."

Some former interns say grunt work does not necessarily signal a bad internship.

During a three-month stint at a Vancouver advertising agency, Stephanie Hogan once tagged several hundred cans of beer with a promotional tag.

"I was the least senior person in the office, and someone needs to do it," she says. "That's how things work in a business setting."

Despite having to do some mundane tasks, Hogan says her internship experience was invaluable and led to a paid contract position.

Displacing paid employees

Hogan says she hopes negative stories — like two U.S. former Black Swan interns who successfully sued their employer for backpay — do not deter employers from continuing to provide unpaid placements.

Eric Glatt, the lead plaintiff on the Black Swan suit, says even if his unpaid internship had provided valuable experience and training, it would have been problematic because often unpaid internships replace paid workers.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Liberal MP Scott Brison hosted a roundtable discussion with special interest groups, including the Canadian Intern Association, to discuss how the government can help manage the issue. (Canadian Intern Association)

"None of those things speak to the person who used to have a paid job," he says.

Brison agrees that unpaid interns are replacing some paid Canadian workers.

Carley, who asked for her last name not to be published, has seen it first-hand. She worked in a Toronto company's head office and often managed its interns. During her 1.5 years of employment there, Carley says the company had about eight interns, each for a three-month stint.

At first, the interns were extra workers. However, when a receptionist left, Carley says a revolving door of interns filled the vacancy.

"Instead of hiring a full time employee to sit at the front of the office, [interns] would be assigned to sit there and greet guests," she says, rattling off a wide range of secretarial duties the interns — who were hired as finance/corporate interns —would perform.

'Clearer standards' needed

The seemingly elusive positive and legal internships do exist. Brison says such internships:

  • Train a young person in transferable skills that can help them in their early career.
  • Do not displace or replace a paid worker.

To help identify illegal internships, Brison says "we really need to have clearer standards, and those are lacking today" or young Canadians "can stand to be exploited."

B.C. and Ontario recently released clarifications on what constitutes a legal unpaid internship in those provinces. Their new guidelines agree with Brison's assessment of internships needing to provide practical training without displacing paid workers.

Scaling back internships

Brison wants to see what the provincial and federal governments can do to recognize best practices around unpaid internships.

Last week, Brison and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau hosted a roundtable discussion with the Canadian Intern Association — infamous for naming and shaming Canadian employers advertising unpaid work — and various student and employer organizations to discuss potential solutions.

Not everyone is keen on Brison's plan.

Jesse Klein, a National Post columnist who recently penned a column titled Let the interns work for free, argues mandating paid internships will force companies that cannot otherwise afford to provide these opportunities to scale back on their programs.

"You'd have a lot of people with lost opportunities," he says.

Klein completed a handful of internships during his studies — some paid, others not.

When budgeting, students should take into account some of their funds for "that summer when you will be doing an unpaid internship," says Klein.

Looking forward

As lawmakers start to tackle the issue, Canadian youth are left with few options, with many taking menial unpaid work they simply cannot afford to do.

When they feel wronged by their employer, unpaid interns face a professional dilemma: file a complaint, and they risk stigmatizing themselves in the industry.

Older than your average intern, Glatt recognizes not everyone has the means or desire to sue their employer, as he did after working on Black Swan.

"If I had been still in my early 20s, just out of school and I had one single dream and it was to work in the movie industry? Of course I wasn't going to file a lawsuit," he says. "The first thing that's going to go out the window ... is the very reason you did the internship: it's to create connections and establish a reputation for yourself."

Glatt notes his co-plaintiff was in his 20s, and following their lawsuit they noticed a surge in similar cases.

Most recently, CBC's Kathy Tomlison revealed two former Bell Mobility interns filed complaints with the government against the telecommunications giant.

While Brison tries to rally the government for stronger checks and balances around unpaid internships, he offers youth some tongue-in-cheek advice, noting the "real challenge" that young people trying to enter the workforce tend to face.

"Be born into a family rich enough to subsidize you to enable you to take an unpaid internship with a great organization and with great experience."

Full disclosure from CBC

  • CBC News has an unpaid internship program that runs for six weeks.
  • Our program was established with the support and in accordance with the CBC's union (the CMG).
  • Interns must be recommended by the journalism schools with which we have a relationship. Only a limited number of interns are considered and accepted.
  • Internships are closely supervised and structured as a valuable learning opportunity.