Working for free

SURREY – In the post-recession Canadian job market where unemployment among youth hovers stubbornly at 13 per cent, more graduates are finding experience is more valuable than a pay cheque.

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz raised a few eyebrows in November after suggesting students should work for free in exchange for experience. Some employers have taken note of the free labour offer, hiring students fresh from college and university to take part in unpaid internships with the lure of a job.

The federal NDP has taken note as well, introducing a private members bill in the House of Commons on Nov. 25 that offers some protection for those young workers.

Named the Intern Protection Act, Bill C-636 would extend workplace standards to all unpaid interns, guarantee the same right to health and safety standards and include the same reasonable hours of work as full-time employees.

“Because we don’t have slavery anymore. And when you look at it, the estimation is currently there could be anywhere up to 300,000 unpaid internships in Canada,” explains Jinny Sims, NDP MP for Newton-North Delta.

Sims says the NDP wants the federal government to lay out clear conditions for the use of unpaid labour designated as internships.

Using an example, Sims recently hired an intern for her riding office who needed experience in social policy to complete her degree as a social worker. The NDP would require the internship be associated with a post-secondary or equivalent institution, primarily benefit the intern and not replace any paid employees.

As well, the employer must notify the intern of the terms of the internship before starting the job, including keeping a record of hours worked. The NDP wants Statistics Canada to keep track of those numbers in order to paint a picture of how much businesses rely on interns in the workforce.

“It’s kind of really upsetting that this is happening in 2014,” says Sims. “To me, we have to be very careful with youth unemployment being in the double digits. A lot of young people are desperate and are hoping that this will give them a leg up.”

But Sims says in many instances where interns are taking jobs the experience isn’t related to their education.

“We’re very concerned that we have a growing number of young people doing unpaid work without any protection and without it being of direct benefit to them with regard to the degree they’re working on or any other post secondary courses they’re in.”

Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) journalism chair Beverley Sinclair graduated from BCIT’s broadcast journalism program in 1975 and has worked a career in radio, television, magazines and newspapers.

“I’ve seen the internship thing from all of those perspectives. And I’ve been on both sides of it,” says Sinclair.

She says when she was starting out in the industry, the internships were more legitimate and likely to be associated with a journalism school. They often or almost always led to work.

“But there weren’t the internships we’re talking about now where people are being hired for months without being paid and they’re not still in school,” says Sinclair.

A disappointment in recent years is the number of media companies who call during the vacation season looking for an intern, but Sinclair says what they’re really after is somebody to work for free for two months full-time.

“What they’re really asking me for is to refer students for volunteer labour. And I’m very uncomfortable doing that.”

Sinclair says it’s ultimately up to her students if they want to work for free but at a certain point using the term “internship” is unethical when that’s not what’s on offer. Sinclair says if an internship is part of a course they’re taking then they get a university credit for it and benefit from the labour.

“Because then they’re getting something for it. They’re getting the experience and they’re getting a credit for their course. But outside of that they should be paid.”

Sinclair says many established, corporate media companies are using the term internship when they really mean volunteer labour. She suggests that if the NDP legislation were passed by the government – private member bills seldom become law – it might be difficult for many media outlets who are already “crying broke.”

“So I imagine that some would simply have to go out of business if they couldn’t rely on volunteer labour. But then it makes you wonder, well, maybe they should go out of business then. If they don’t have a business model that can support paying their employees then how valid is the business?”

Recent KPU graduate Hayley Woodin landed a job at the university after finishing the journalism program in May. The 23-year-old Cloverdale native started at KPU in 2009 after graduating from Earl Marriott’s French Immersion program.

Woodin spent two weeks interning at Vancouver’s 24 Hours newspaper to provide holiday relief for a staff employee, and another two weeks at City TV Breakfast Television.

She says it was exciting to see her name in print and go out and shoot videos and take photos despite not being paid.

“It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t being paid because those first two experiences were for credits. So I was paying to take that course and I went out and did that experience and got the credits that I needed to get that degree.”

Although Woodin has put in many hours of unpaid work throughout her young career – both for university credits and just for the experience – she says she doesn’t regret taking the initiative. “My philosophy has always been to, if you can, take any opportunity and I really wanted to make it in journalism and I wanted that experience,” says Woodin.

A self-described “keener” who took opportunities she didn’t need to obtain her degree, Woodin attributes her volunteer work at KPU for the connections she made and what ultimately landed her the job.

“I don’t know if I can speak generally for everyone. Everyone has different economic backgrounds, different goals, different aspirations. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to work full-time during my degree so I had the opportunity to take internships or take opportunities that didn’t compensate me.”

When asked whether landing a job so soon after graduation in the same school was a matter of good luck, Woodin says the key is to gain as much experience and preparation as possible in order to be the right person in the right moment when opportunity knocks.

“I know a lot of people who have not had some of the breaks I have had. And they’ve worked equally as hard during their degree. I don’t know whether that’s luck, timing, qualifications, whether they have other commitments that they’re absolutely required to uphold so they can’t take opportunities.

“I think it can be tough and so I would empathize with people who are trying their best and just cannot catch a break.”

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