When interning becomes exploitation

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Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

Today at a local coffee shop I overheard someone say, “It’s not exploitation if everyone benefits.”
The trouble is this: the entire concept of exploitation suggests that not everyone benefits – at least, not equally.

As students, some could argue we ourselves are exploited. We have climbing tuition fees paired with lower quality education and lower grades in massive classroom environments.

This tradition of exploitation transcends academia. As we trade our backpacks for briefcases, we naively accept grim employment opportunities and conditions with the mindset of “something is better than nothing.”
Decidedly, the most illegal form of this unethical employment is internships.

In theory, an internship can be a pivotal opportunity in a young adult’s career. But this delusion ends in theory. The transaction between young workers and employers is unmistakably exploitative, yet it remains virtuous via its promise of reciprocity.
In Ontario, employers are required to adhere to the Employment Standards Act.

The ESA ensures workers are paid minimum wage and are protected against unlawful treatment. However, the role of an intern often narrowly bypasses these lawful stipulations.

The question becomes this: when does an opportunity exceed the seemingly unessential role an intern would have at a workplace and begin to comprise a position eligible for employment?

The Ministry of Labour in Ontario outlines criteria for a just internship. Unfortunately, this list is comprised of only five conditions, all of which must be met to indicate a legal internship.

Importantly, one obligation is that the preparation an intern receives must directly benefit the individual while another requirement prohibits the employer from benefitting in any substantial form.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Labour candidly addresses post-secondary students claiming the “ESA does not apply to an individual who performs work under a program approved by a college of applied arts or technology or a university.”

In 2013, the Students’ Union at the University of Toronto responded by having this added stipulation eradicated. They rightfully believed unpaid work of any form is unacceptable because it indisputably abuses young workers.

With that said, legal internships are an excellent way to network and gain invaluable experience, which is instrumental to students’ future endeavours. But, illegal internships are nothing but a tool to provide free labour to companies that tread the thin and ambiguous ESA guidelines.

As you leave academia and venture into a corporate environment, I encourage you not devalue your individual worth to gain miniscule experience.

It is acceptable to question an internship and it is equally acceptable to decline free labour if a company breaches ESA policies.
Perhaps something is not better than nothing when something reduces you to nothing.


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