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SAUIS seeks changes to unpaid internship framework

New campaign advocates for government intervention over unpaid internships in Ontario
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On Tuesday, Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams (SAUIS), an advocacy group, launched a campaign that urges provincial government reform on unpaid internships. Unpaid interns are currently not covered under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), Ontario’s cornerstone legislation overseeing employment.

At the press conference announcing the new campaign, SAUIS listed three recommendations for Ontario’s Ministry of Labour — include proactive enforcement of existing employment regulations, a public education campaign on unpaid internships, and a comprehensive government review of the laws governing unpaid internships.

“There is a growing push to address unpaid internships in Ontario,” according to Josh Mandryk, a spokesperson for SAUIS and third-year student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law In Canada, unpaid internships are a murky field with little government oversight. Although an estimated 200,000 postsecondary students undertake in unpaid internships each year, no provincial or federal agency keeps data on interns.

At the University of Toronto, decisions concerning proposed unpaid internships are made at the department or faculty level. According to Michael Kurts, associate vice-president of strategic communications, this makes the prevalence of unpaid internships “difficult to determine, due both to the decentralized nature of the University and to the various ways that internships are defined.”

“The university supports educational opportunities for students that prepare them well for the careers they plan to follow,” Kurts said. “That might include a service learning component, an international placement, a co-op opportunity, a paid internship or an unpaid internship.”

A number of campus organizations have expressed concern over Ontario’s unpaid internship framework. “Unpaid internships exploit students and young graduates,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). “For-profit companies benefit from free labour, while young people contend with the highest unemployment rate we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”

In an email to The Varsity, Sajjad stated that the UTSU is currently working on a campaign that calls on the federal government to create a “National Youth Unemployment Strategy.” He also stated that UTSU is working on initiatives to enhance regulation of the existing ESA.

Shawn Tian, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union, also expressed concerns over unpaid internships. “Wasted hours running petty errands which [do] nothing to bolster our resumes is about as bad as it gets,” Tian noted. Tian believes that shorter, more intensive internships would allow students to get valuable experience while not putting a large financial burden on employers.

“It’s important for [students] to realize our own worth as potential interns,” Tian asserted. “There are plenty of internships that offer solid learning opportunities and [students] should not settle if it means wasted hours with little experiential learning.”

Some U of T students, like third-year molecular genetics and microbiology major Monica, have had positive experiences with unpaid internships. Monica works as a student researcher in a campus lab. She claims her internship has been instrumental in kindling her interest in scientific research. “I never really had much ambition before I worked in this lab,” she explained, “but now that I’ve found something I love doing, I feel much more motivated to do well in my classes.”

Monica does see problems with the current system for unpaid internships. Most importantly, she believes that unpaid internships exclude disadvantaged students. “I understand the argument that experience gained is worth more than a salary, but I think the obvious problem is that most people can’t afford to work for free,” she acknowledged. “This means that entire fields where unpaid internships are the expected entry point become almost entirely inaccessible to people who don’t have enough money.”

“I’d like to see it become easier to get a research position in the context of a paying job,” Monica sad. “I’d like to see more official job postings, with stipends listed. Instead of having to email professors with interesting research at random, why not make it more obvious who’s looking for students and who isn’t?”

U of T’s Career Centre does list some paid and unpaid research opportunities, but the majority of positions go unlisted. A recent search for “research positions” on the U of T Career Centre’s website yielded no results.

“It’s time for action on unpaid internships,” Mandryk said. “We hope to see to all three parties coming together to protect young workers from abuse.” SAUIS plans to advance the group’s message to every Member of Provincial Parliament in the coming weeks.