Internships are becoming an increasingly attractive option for students looking to enhance their education and secure relevant work experience for the future. With this increase in attractiveness comes an increase in competition for internship positions — many of which remain unpaid. For many, these entry-level positions are considered a prerequisite for future success and represent the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a student’s field of interest. However, as competition for paid internships increases, few spots are being made available for undergraduate students, as employing organizations favour more experienced applicants with degrees.
For this reason, many undergraduates are being forced to settle for unpaid internships. Unfortunately, many students cannot afford to take on the burden of unpaid work in their time off. For those who have to work their way through school, these opportunities remain unfeasible. Many students are being forced to choose between financial responsibility and security, and the relevant, real-world experience these programs have to offer. Those who opt for the latter may find themselves having to take on extra jobs during the school year to compensate for a lack of summer savings.
In light of the potential ramifications of unpaid internships, one has to wonder if they represent a societal good. Internships are supposed to provide experience in a chosen field; however, the associated work is often comprised mainly of menial tasks — months spent making coffee runs and filing papers. While these internships fill blank space on a resume, they do not necessarily give students the experience they need to help them decide their future pursuits. In this regard, the purpose of the internship has not been fulfilled.
It is for these reasons that Ontario MPP Jonah Schein of the NDP has proposed a bill at Queen’s Park to include unpaid interns in the Employment Standards Act. Currently, unpaid interns are not protected by the act. Rather, they fall into the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labour, which has been increasing its efforts to ensure that health and safety standards are in place for unpaid interns.
Schein claims that this is not enough. With Schein’s efforts, unpaid interns would be assured the protections and breaks that paid workers get. This would include ensuring that there are contracts for unpaid interns — which include detailed job descriptions and clearly delineate weekly work hours. The goal is to ensure that interns are not taken advantage of or degraded because they are unpaid. This initiative would also ensure that unpaid interns are actually getting the field experience they desire, rather than performing trivial duties for credit.
What Schein is doing to help unpaid interns is essential, as it will ensure that internships for students serve a purpose and actually help to develop necessary skills. It may also incentivize unpaid internships — students may not be getting paid, but at the very least they will feel secure with the knowledge that they are protected under the law, and that their work matters.
The proposed piece of legislation will improve accountability, while also providing an outlet for student grievances when interns feel they are being taken advantage of. This is of particular importance, as many unpaid interns might have had reservations over speaking out against their employers for fear of losing the job or a future reference. If passed, this bill would bring regulation and oversight to an exploding industry that shows no signs of slowing down — making all students feel a little more at ease about working for free.
Nabeela Latif is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science and ethics, society, and law.