Q&A with labour lawyer, Andrew Langille and Director of Career Services and Counselling, Tracey Lloyd, Ph.D.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
The Courier: Are these proper unpaid internships or are they misclassified free labour?
AL: Both examples are extremely problematic. If the first student was undertaking the internship as part of an academic program then the student would be excluded from protection under the Employment Standards Act, 2000, due to the presence of an exclusion under s. 3(5)(2) of the ESA. That being said, the National Post has access to hundreds of millions of dollars and should be paying any interns that write articles for them. The second example regarding the Pan Am Games is illegal and an example of employee misclassification
TL: It sounds like the experience was valuable for the students involved. I recognize that there is some controversy around unpaid internships, but I think there are some important considerations to note regarding work placement opportunities that are a component of a student’s academic program. Granted there are some programs, for example, journalism where unpaid internships may be more common, however, these can provide students with valuable learning experiences. As I often stress, both unpaid and paid opportunities should be carefully researched so as not to have employers take advantage of students.
I would also suggest that students look carefully at the company’s track record and make sure that it is a reputable company. Some questions to ask would be: does the company have a formal internship program with a formal training program? Is supervision provided and adequate? How meaningful and relevant are the duties to the student’s future career goals? Is the environment safe? What policies are in place for current employees?
TC: In your opinion is there any legitimate unpaid educational position that should exist in a workforce? Should students be taking these unpaid positions?
AL: The Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities needs to adopt a “paid-first” mentality when it comes to work-integrated learning. Ontario boasts a world leader in cooperative education with the University of Waterloo and that model should be how work-integrated learning is structured. An “earn while you learn” focus would give students the opportunity to earn a wage, put classroom learning to use in a workplace setting, and allow the students to gain valuable technical skills. What exists in Ontario currently is a disjointed system with little oversight which is of dubious benefit to post-secondary students.
Colleges and universities are essentially renting out students as free labour to employers. This trend has been seen in various academic programs, from hospitality to paralegal studies, it’s a really sick situation for students to be forced into. Last year there was a report about student interns scrubbing hotel toilets in Toronto, that’s just wrong.
TL: The questions from my first response are something that a College field placement coordinator or co-op advisor would ask of an employer before suggesting an opportunity to a student. The important thing to ask is: Is this a good learning opportunity and a chance for the student to develop employability skills that will ultimately give the student a competitive advantage in the job market.
TC: What is the alternative to the current system and how should these “interns” be compensated?
AL: Well, the cooperative education model is the best approach to work-integrated learning that I have seen. Students should be earning a wage for the hours they spend working. Alternatively, providing students with a form of guaranteed income to meet living expenses while doing an internship might be another model that could be examined. This would be a system of grants covering students’ living costs for whatever period of time they’re participating in work-integrated learning.
TL: Some employers provide a stipend, honorarium or cover travel costs for students. Others involve students in in-house training, conferences and other professional development opportunities open to their employees. The co-op model where you “earn as you learn” may be ideal but is not accessible and sustainable for the vast number of students who require work experience as part of their academic programs, and who obviously benefit from exposure to real work settings whether on a volunteer basis or otherwise.
TC: Do you think offering alternative compensation such as gifts, vouchers or even OSAP perks?
AL: We need to get serious about addressing the serious deficiencies related to work-integrated learning. Students are going into debt, working full-time jobs on the side to make ends meet, and are having a really terrible time jumping through hoops to appease employers and the academic institutions. The structural problems (i.e. high tuition, increasing debt loads, precarious work, lack of workplace rights) we’re seeing need to be addressed. Right now, students have zero employment standards rights when they’re on an academic internship or other form of work-integrated learning. There have been a number of deaths of students on internships. The lack of rights is causing unsafe and in some cases deadly situations.
TC: Do you think the current unpaid internships actually provide an opportunity for students to enter their field?
AL: It really depends on the specifics of each program and the individual internships. Certainly internships can be highly beneficial, but there’s no reason why students shouldn’t be getting paid for their work. Another thing to remember is that women, racialized groups, and recent immigrants are the big losers with unpaid labour. Unpaid internships reinforce pre-existing and historical labour market trends that tend to devalue the labour of equity seeking groups. Why does nursing, teaching, journalism, nutrition, and social work all have unpaid labour as a requirement of the education? These are female dominated fields and we’re seeing a devaluing of the labour along gendered lines.
TL: This depends on the quality of the experience and, of course, the performance of the student. I have seen a number of cases where students go on to work with the organization where they did their field placement or with an employer in the same industry because they managed to expand their network while on placement.
TC: Do you think there is any truth to the claim that events like the Pan Am games without unpaid labour?
AL: The Pan Am Games would have been impossible to put on without the illegal unpaid labour of thousands of misclassified young workers who put in tens of thousands of hours. The Pan Am Games are directly responsible for one of the largest wage theft scams in modern Canadian history.
TL: I don’t feel I have enough information to comment appropriately. But based on the feedback from the students you interviewed, it seems like their experience was quite positive. In my opinion, the Pan Am games may likely have been a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of the volunteers, so why sit on the sidelines when you can be part of the excitement and when there is also an opportunity for civic engagement.
TC: What should be done to address the problems in the current system?
AL: There needs to be a combination of law reform, a move towards cooperative education, grants to cover living expenses of student interns, and new public policy to meet the challenges that work-integrated learning brings.
TL: Numerous studies cite the importance of students having field experience before graduation. From an employer perspective a meaningful field experience, unpaid or paid, does give the student an edge in the job search and interview process. So despite the controversy, I don’t think we can totally discredit these types of opportunities, but we do need to pay attention to the safeguards so as to avoid exploitation of students. Policies and protocols for service learning and work-integrated learning in general, need to be developed to guide the practice and implementation of programs.
The issue is also connected to the larger issues associated with youth unemployment, and underemployment and unemployment among other groups in our community. Addressing some of the economic and system constraints associated with inequities in the workplace can positively influence how internships and other work-integrated learning opportunities are managed by both business, government and post-secondary institutions.