Getting exposure or getting exploited?

(Graphic by Wade Thompson).
(Graphic by Wade Thompson).

In a crowded conference room in a downtown Toronto hotel, the atmosphere is tense. It’s the 75th annual Canadian University Press Conference and it is filled with eager young student journalists, all of whom are intently listening to a panel speak on a rather touchy topic: internships.

The panel is filled with esteemed members of the journalistic and legal communities, including employment lawyer Andrew Langille, Edward Keenan, a Senior Editor at The Grid and Shameless Magazine founder Nicole Cohen. But it’s the one intern on the panel — Chris Berube, who interned with Radio Lab in New York City — who hits it home. “In the end,” he laughed, “someone is getting fucked.”

Generation Y — or Generation Meh depending on whom you’re asking — is a generation faced with increasingly grim career prospects. A recent New York Times article claimed that one employer was looking for “22-22-22”; a 22-year-old who would work 22 hours a day for $22,000 a year. For some, even the hint of payment is better than nothing while looking at posting after posting for interns who will work for free, or next to free.

Articles appear almost weekly trying to sort out why “Millenials” can’t make money, have to move back in with their parents, are too lazy to do good work and work too much for free. As a generation, we’re just full of contradictory problems.

Unpaid internships have become the flashpoint of much of this discussion. It’s now the norm that a recent university or college graduate will spend a few months working in their chosen field for free in the hopes of building the connections and portfolio that will lead to gainful employment.

(Graphic by Wade Thompson).
(Graphic by Wade Thompson).

The new normal

Interning is actually the new normal. 100 years ago, interns were limited to the medical field, filling the roll that is today better known as residents. Agata Zieba, a graduate of the masters program of communications at Wilfrid Laurier, traced the rise of internships over the last 50 years as part of her final thesis research. It wasn’t until the 1980s that internships saw a boom, primarily in media.

“For individuals … what I think is that being able to say ‘I worked at a magazine,’ people think you’re cool,” she said. “You’re proud to say you’re working at a magazine even though you’re working there for free or for very little pay.” The social cachet of working at Vogue, for instance, is worth taking a drop in income.

The Ministry of Labour does not track internships numbers. Complicating the matter is that fact that often people will do multiple internships at once, which means the same person may account for several positions. “Up to seven or eight [internships for one person] is not unheard of,” Langille said, a few months prior to speaking before the Canadian University Press Conference.

Langille, in addition to his employment law practice, is writing his masters thesis on the legal regulation of internships. He blogs about the issue at

Langille estimates that 100,000 internships can be found in Toronto alone, and between 300,000 and 100,000 in Canada. “Where you could get up to a 1,000 or 1,500 unpaid internships a year [at a single employer], it’s pretty easy to get there.” This certainly contradicts the popular myth that Generation Y is lazy or isn’t working. Generation Y is working a lot; they’re just not getting paid for it.

But before you can even determine how many interns there are, you have to ask: What is an intern? “The word intern or internship doesn’t have any legal meaning,” said Claire Seaborn, one of the founders of the Canadian Intern Association, an organization created to advocate for interns’ rights. It’s hard sometimes to pin down exactly what an intern is or does.

At best we can describe interns as existing in the nebulous space between paid employee and volunteer. Yet because they’ve become so common, Seaborn said we assume there is a set definition. People associate interns with tasks ranging from the mundane – fetching coffee, making copies – to tasks that would normally be filled by entry-level employees.

In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act does provide some protection for interns. If you’re doing work that provides a benefit for your employer — such as increased profits — or replacing the position of a paid employee, under the Act you have to be paid for your work.

But both Langille and Seaborn point out that many unpaid interns are in fact doing work that they should be paid for under the law. “If they just had fewer unpaid internships and redirected resources to more paid positions, or at least contract positions … young people can at least make an income,” said Seaborn.

Langille noted that part of the problem is that the criteria found in the Employment Standards Act puts the responsibility on the intern to prove that the company is in breach. So if you’re a lowly 23-year-old intern who wants to start a claim against a major telecommunications company, it falls on your shoulders to prove they are in the wrong.

Aside from the costs associated with bringing a claim against a company or suing them, interns will avoid it simply to save face. People don’t become interns for the financial security; they do it with the hopes of meeting that magic person who will give them the break they need to get into the industry.

“They want a reference letter,” said Greig de Peuter, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier who studies precarious work in culture industries (he also supervised Zieba’s thesis research). “The carrot is moving into full-time work.”

The fear of being branded “difficult to work with” or a whistleblower has led to reluctance on the part of interns to speak out. “I found it intriguing that even the interns I spoke with found internships exploitative that they still were willing to work at them,” said Zieba. Quitting isn’t an option when your reputation is on the line.

(Graphic by Wade Thompson).

Profile over profit

You can’t have unpaid internships without having people who are willing to work for nothing. Luckily, for many industries, those who are willing to sacrifice pay for exposure are numerous. In particular creative industries – journalism, arts, fashion, public relations – see higher rates of unpaid internships than those who take internships in, for example, science and technology.

“They [interns] might think it’s a glamourous task when it may not necessarily be one,” said Zieba. She points to shows like The Hills as examples of media making life as an intern seem much more comfortable and fun than the reality. Lauren Conrad, star of The Hills, actually appeared on the cover of the very magazine she was interning for, Teen Vogue — not a likely scenario for most people who are planning on taking unpaid internships.

Of course not all interns want to be reality TV stars. Some are passionate about the work and want a job that’s rewarding. “There’s a promise of opportunity of expressing yourself,” said de Peuter, referring to those who pursue freelance careers. This promise is attractive to a certain demographic of young adults. It’s certainly why this very article appears in the newspaper you are now reading. It’s produced, almost entirely, by dedicated volunteers who do it for lots of their own personal reasons. The same applies in many ways to internships.

But when it comes to this precarious employment, critics contend that employers have created a zero sum game where people are willing to work for nothing without any guarantees that the connections they need will come through at the right time. The only people who win are the companies that profit off the interns’ work.

It’s not a game that everyone can afford to play either. Zieba contends that internships represent a new glass ceiling — you don’t get to pass unless you can afford to work for free. For those who leave school with significant debt, that means their options are limited. “Young people are thought of as not having pressing financial obligations,” said de Peuter.

This is particularly ironic given that many of these jobs — particularly journalism — were once very real career options for the working class, deemed unworthy by the elite. Fans of Downton Abbey will remember how horrified the aristocratic Grantham family was when middle daughter Edith considered writing a weekly column for a London newspaper. These days, she’d probably be honoured to be picked for unpaid editorial internship at a magazine.

At the Canadian University Press Conference, Keenan — who ran the internship program at Eye Weekly before it was transformed into The Grid — notes that to intern at Eye, he had to borrow $3,000 to survive. Berube lived at home and considered taking a job as a gravedigger as the hours wouldn’t impact on his internship. “Ultimately,” said Keenan. “It will depend on your situation.”

Sarah Murphy is another former intern who was lucky to have support. Now a masters of journalism student at Ryerson, she is emphatic in how much she loved interning at Exclaim!, a monthly Canadian music magazine that she still freelances for.

“I was living at home,” she said. “That was a huge relief that I know a lot of people don’t have the luxury of having.” She also worked two part-time jobs during the latter part of her back to back internships. Murphy — like Keenan and Berube – didn’t regret doing the internships because in her case the work did lead to opportunity.

For women, avoiding unpaid internships is much harder. “I think unpaid internships have a disproportionate affect on young females,” said Langille. Science and tech companies — two traditionally male dominated fields — offer many more paid internships compared to those in creative industries. “There’s an equality angle in terms of who’s going to school and in terms of which programs predominantly have paid internships,” Langille added.
Studies in the U.S. have found that people who completed paid internships are much more likely to find a job whereas those who complete unpaid internships don’t fare any better than those who didn’t bother to do one at all. Given the gender inequality that exists between majors, it means that more males are successful at finding gainful employment post-university or college.

But the times are changing.

Remember when your mom encouraged you to go get that law degree so you could finally make a steady income? Apparently a lot of other people’s mom’s had the same thought. Law school numbers are increasing and articling positions — a requirement to practice in Ontario — aren’t rising to meet the new numbers.

This change led the Law Society of Upper Canada to institute new rules last year that allowed would-be lawyers to pass the bar if they completed additional courses and an unpaid term working at a law office or legal clinic. It’s not quite the same as an unpaid internship at a fashion magazine, but it is another example of the precarious work situation Gen. Y is facing as a whole.

“Ultimately, entry level jobs are being jeopardized because interns are being hired for that position,” says Zieba. A decent paying job that’s attainable to recent graduates seems to be going extinct.

(Graphic by Wade Thompson).
(Graphic by Wade Thompson).

Interns unite

Diana Wang was just one of the thousands of interns behind the scenes at a fashion magazine until she became the story. Wang launched a class action lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, the owner of Harpers Bazaar where she worked. 3,000 other Hearst interns joined her.

Wang’s action is just one prong of resistance against this precarious form of labour. “We’re seeing the politicization of young people,” says de Peuter, using the recent examples of Occupy and Idle No More as mass mobilizations of a younger generation. Following these protests, there’s been a wave of organizations focusing on improving economic conditions for the “Millenials” including the Carrotworkers Collective in England and the Geneva Interns Association, a group focused on improving working conditions for the army of interns who staff the United Nations General Secretariat.

While many Canadian interns still prefer the cloak of anonymity to preserve their reputations, they’re able to find support with organizations like the Canadian Intern Association. Seaborn, herself a law student at the University of Ottawa, started CIA because she had heard one too many stories from her friends about the exploitative internships they experienced. The organization is still growing — Seaborn hopes to create a guide for interns about their legal rights and start filling the gaps in what we know.

For her, the issue of interns’ rights comes down in part to a responsibility on the part of the employer to ensure fair working conditions. “[Unpaid internships] shouldn’t be culturally acceptable which is why we want to raise awareness about this issue,” she said. “It’s a corporate social responsibility issue.”

Langille believes that the tools we need to protect interns already exist; right in the Employment Standards Act. “The problem is enforcement,” he said. “Essentially the model that we have in Ontario currently is a reactive enforcement model so someone has to call up and complain about the employer and then there might be an investigation.”

Kyle Iannuzzi is one of the few interns known to have successfully made a Employment Standards claim. While interning for an event planner, he found himself with increasingly important duties. When he finally approached his employer and asked for either the terms of his internship to be changed or compensation for his work, the relationship soured. Iannuzzi filed his claim and was successful; he received all the pay he was owed at the minimum wage rate.

(Graphic by Wade Thompson).
(Graphic by Wade Thompson).

“I think I burnt a bridge,” said Iannuzzi. “But to be honest … these industries are big enough, especially in Toronto, that you want to align yourself with the people you work well with.” Fighting for his rights under the Employment Standards Act was worth any fallout he might encounter down the road. However, Iannuzzi does know that there are people who aren’t able, because of money or other reasons, to make claims against illegal internships. “I think that there’s a lot of people in a very vulnerable state.”

Change won’t happen tomorrow however. Murphy recommends that those who are still willing to do an unpaid internship ask lots of questions to ensure they’re actually going to get what they want our of the experience.

“Don’t expect to get a full time job out of it,” she said. “You’re going to have to work to build your connections. That’s the harsh reality of the industry.”
The internship debate boils down to one important issue for Langille. “Essentially, it comes down to the point that labour should be paid for,” he said. “That is something that has been forgotten.”

What makes an intern an intern?

•  The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school
•  The training is for the benefit of the individual
•  The person providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained
•  The individual does not displace employees of the person providing the training
•  The individual is not accorded a right to become an employe of the person providing the training
•  The individual is advised that he or she will receive no remuneration for the time that he or she spends in training

An intern should properly fall under these categories — remember, there is no legal definition of what an intern is!


Lawyer referral service:

Ministry of Labour:

Workers Action Centre

Carrotworkers Collective

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