Unpaid student internships: paying to work for free

Advocates say unpaid internships are a form of free labour and should be discontinued

By Kevin Goodger and Angela Serednicki

An internship is a popular way for students to gain experience in their chosen field, and can be a great way to make some money – if it’s a paid internship.

According to the Ministry of Labour and the Employment Standards Act (ESA),employers in Ontario are not required to pay students in internship positions, as long as the positions are under a college or university program.

The director of work integrated learning (WIL) at George Brown College (GBC),Dario Guescini, said WIL encompasses apprenticeships, field education, co-op, internships, clinical placement, applied research, and service learning aimed at exposing students to meaningful work experiences.

“That’s the end goal, not just to do work, or unpaid work. It’s not about that. It’s about the training, it’s about experiencing what the real life of working is all about,” he said. While people on co-ops generally get paid, interns often don’t need to be paid if it’s through a school program.

Samantha Blackwood, a digital media marketing postgraduate student at GBC, was surprised that a lot of internship opportunities available in her postgraduate certificate program were unpaid.

Having completed two unpaid internships in her career, she noted that unpaid internship job postings are often inaccurate.

“They tell you that you’re going to have all these responsibilities, you’re going to learn all these things, and you end up doing admin work or getting people coffee,” said Blackwood.

As with any program, it is important to ensure that WIL opportunities are valuable to the students undertaking them.

“The school made it seem like they vetted people and really went to visit these companies and talk to them, but I don’t think they really know the details of the internships,” she said.

“Right now what we’re focusing on is enhancing the quality of those experiences,” said Guescini.

William Webb, the executive director of The Canadian Intern Association, anon-profit organization that aims to improve internship experiences, says that unpaid internships required by school programs are problematic.

“Students are required to pay to work rather than getting paid for work. They have to pay for it which is concerning from a basic kind of employment standard and fairness perspective,” said Webb.

He also highlighted the power dynamics between unpaid students and employers.

For example, employers may hold grades over their students’ heads to make them work longer hours and do more work, he explained.

“It’s concerning, because as a student it might jeopardize your grade or position in a program.”

Additionally, students face the chance of losing their tuition or fees paid to take part in the internship if it is to fall through.

“Those are the kind of severe inequalities that are concerning,” he said.

Chris Glover, NDP MPP critic, colleges and universities, had a similar view on unpaid internships.

“Too often employers take advantage of unpaid internships to have free labour. You have somebody come in and intern, and as soon as that person is done their term, they bring in someone else who is working for free, rather than provide that person with a job,” said Glover.

On March 18, students across Quebec will be participating in a province-wide coalition against unpaid internships.

“Universities (and colleges) need to stop asking students to take unpaid internships,” said Miriam Lafontaine, a journalism student at Concordia University and editor-in-chief of The Link.

Lafontaine will be participating in a week-long strike against unpaid internships in her program.

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Unpaid student internships: paying to work for free