It is time for the country to replicate the UK and US’ policies on unpaid work

In June 2013, CBC reported that Bell Mobility kept a warehouse in Mississauga where 280 young people worked (more than full-time hours) without pay. In a separate building from the paid employees, unpaid interns say they did menial tasks like phone surveys, and were consistently pressured to work overtime, sometimes as late as 3:00 am.

Bell is one of many Canadian companies that could pay their interns but choose not to. After all, Bell Canada Enteprises enjoyed a $708-million profit in the fourth quarter of 2013, a 46 per cent increase over 2012.

Canada is awash in unpaid interns: we have approximately 300,000 of them. The United Kingdom, which has roughly twice the population of Canada, has around 100,000 unpaid interns. That isn’t the only difference between the two countries, however.

The UK’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban unpaid internships, and Prime Minister David Cameron has quadrupled the fines for businesses that take advantage of young people.

By contrast, our lawmakers have done little, allowing a solid chunk of the next generation to work without pay.

In the short term, not paying approximately 300,000 young workers means students will take longer to pay off their loans, and parents will delay retirement as they continue to support their children.

Over the span of decades, though, unpaid internships delay adulthood. People without an income can’t afford to start a family or buy a home. They don’t pay income taxes, although they still use tax money through social services. They certainly don’t have the financial security for bold investment or innovative entrepreneurship that the Canadian economy needs to thrive.

And it’s not as if the rest of the economic outlook for this generation is particularly positive. Youth unemployment has hovered stubbornly around double the national average since 2008. Almost half of those who are employed work part-time, not earning enough to live on. The work that isn’t part-time tends to be temporary or contract-based, without the benefits or stability that allowed previous generations to get started.

Unpaid internships are the simplest part of this problem, and one that is very easy to fix — mostly we just need to enforce existing laws that already make them illegal.

Many companies who choose not to pay their interns are incredibly profitable. Bell is just one company that simultaneously enjoys huge profits and brands itself as quintessentially Canadian, but didn’t bother to pay young Canadians in their employ. Roots Canada advertised two five-month unpaid internships for candidates who, preferably, already had an undergraduate degree. Rogers had many unpaid interns until quite recently, when they,  along with a number of magazines, were caught up in a crackdown by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour.

Even the federal government doesn’t pay some of its interns. If you want to get in the fast track for a job in the Foreign Service with a prestigious internship in China or Washington D.C., you’d better to be able to live overseas for about six months without getting paid a cent.

Although recent reports indicate that there are ever more unpaid interns in Canada and that they are frequently exploited, there are some positive signs. Saskatchewan and Ontario are starting to enforce existing law, insisting that young people who work must be paid for it. Alberta is facing sustained pressure to do the same, and there are nascent movements in several other provinces.

Even the federal government is responding to public pressure, announcing funding for 3,000 paid interns. Lawsuits for back wages are also on the rise, with several young people winning salaries from employers who should have paid them, and many more cases pending resolution.

However, more must be done. It’s not just the United Kingdom that’s far ahead of us — the United States Department of Labor has been comparatively aggressive for years in prosecuting employers who exploit unpaid interns. Both countries, with very similar economies to our own, recognized that unpaid internships are immoral long ago. They’ve now realized that unpaid internships are dragging down their economy. If we want to remain competitive, it’s past time we started doing the same.

Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year history student who contributes to The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. He was The Varsity’s news editor last year. His column appears bi-weekly. 

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