Recently, I received an email from my department at the University of Toronto outlining summer work opportunities I could apply for that were relevant to my illustrious forthcoming Bachelor’s degree in social science. A few were paid positions; the majority however, were not. My personal favourite, the United Nations Association in Canada, contained a section titled “Why Should I Pay to Intern?” filled with buzz phrases on the importance of “investment in your career” and “employability in the international job market.”
Investing in job skills for the future is a nice sentiment for those who have the disposable income to do so. But for those of us who are required to work out of financial necessity, it raises the question: shouldn’t the United Nations Association, at the very least, be setting an example?
For a generation already expected to have a lower standard of living than its predecessor, the expectation that we will also work for free is nothing but a cruel joke. Free labour provided in exchange for a reference on a glamorous letterhead or an enhanced resume has frighteningly become the norm for youth entering the job market.
My point here is not to discuss why unpaid internships are damaging. We know that unpaid internships exploit inexperienced students. By the nature of assigning administrative tasks to uncompensated workers, unpaid internships take away positions that could be occupied by paid professionals. What’s more, unpaid internships perpetuate a cycle of privilege and socioeconomic stratification by serving those who can afford to bear the opportunity cost of not working.
However, the question remains: if we’ve recognized that unpaid internships are harmful, where do we go from here? As a student body, we have several options.
First, we can pressure students on an individual level to demand compensation for their labour. Unfortunately, undergraduates with minimal work experience have little bargaining power as individuals. If students turn down swanky internships because they want 11 dollars an hour to pay rent or feel a moral imperative to set a precedent on the ethics of unpaid work, employers can easily find another willing participant.
Secondly, we can pressure legislative bodies to enact standards outlawing unpaid labour. The Employment Standards Act of 2000 already outlines that all interns are entitled to minimum wage, with limited exceptions. One of these exceptions includes a vague, often-invoked promise that training provided during the internship be “for the benefit of the intern.”
Internships approved by a college or university can also refuse to pay. While we should pressure our elected officials to eventually eliminate unpaid labour over time, we should also acknowledge that legislative bodies are slow-moving and vague exceptions to labour laws can be difficult to enforce.
Our best option for immediate change is to pressure U of T and other institutions to delegitimize full-time, unpaid internships by refusing to advertise them. Currently, U of T’s Career Centre and individual departments will advertise full-time, unpaid internships so long as they comply with the standards set by the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
However, if U of T purports to be an institution committed to equity, the administration should refuse to validate these inequitable practices. Unpaid internships are inherently inequitable given that they exploit students and perpetuate privilege.
U of T should therefore leverage its institutional strength to make a statement on the ethics of labour compensation by refusing to advertise full-time labour unless workers are paid at least minimum wage. Additionally, individual academic departments should screen full-time internship opportunities and refuse to promote unpaid ones through the department, the web, or departmental internship coordinators.
The purpose of this exercise is not to make unpaid internships inaccessible. If students want to find internships, they can still readily do so on their own accord with the plethora of materials available through the Internet. On the other hand, by refusing to acknowledge their existence, U of T would make an influential statement on how certain internship opportunities exploit student inexperience.
Meghan Peterson is a fourth-year student studying political science, history, and Russian Literature at Trinity College.