Fall 2014


Unpaid Internships Promote Inequality

By Christo Aivalis

Recently Stephen Poloz, governor of the Bank of Canada, recommended that jobless youth work for free, saying, "If your parents are letting you live in the basement, you might as well go out and do something for free to put the experience on your CV."

While it's true the recent economic downturn has many young people living at home longer, Poloz's assumption doesn't reflect the reality of hundreds of thousands of others who have to support themselves financially, and who do so through high-interest loans, credit, and working more than one job.

Maybe young people from wealthier backgrounds can afford to take unpaid positions, but many of us need money to pay loans and living expenses. Poloz also ignores the fact that many parents don't have the means to support and house their adult-aged children. His understanding comes from the place of privilege that an annual salary of $434,000 provides.

At the same time, just how often unpaid internships help us gain paid employment is debatable. Conventional logic has it that working for free gets your foot in the door. However, the American-based National Association of Colleges and Employers finds otherwise. According to their data, as reported in The Atlantic, internships provide significant benefits — if they're paid. Nearly two-thirds of paid internships lead to jobs, while unpaid internships lead to jobs only around one-third of the time. Further, unpaid internships lead to jobs only 1.8 per cent more often than when there's been no internship at all. So, while Poloz might be correct that some experience is better than none, unpaid work doesn't necessarily lead to paid work.

There is also little guarantee that unpaid labour will provide relevant experience. For example, last fall, the CBC reported that an upscale Vancouver hotel offered an unpaid bus-person internship to satisfy practical training for a collegiate culinary program.

Finally, as the Toronto Star noted earlier this year, unpaid internships tend to be held by young women, and are clustered in fields like journalism, teaching, nursing, and social work. This perpetuates both the belief that women's labour is worth less than men's, and that work integral to quality public services and democratic debate (work not necessarily valued by the private, corporate world) is worth less as well.

Beyond all this, the drive towards low-paid and unpaid labour spells trouble for the Canadian economy, where increased profits have not led to the broad-based economic recovery that comes with higher consumer spending derived from better-paying jobs. Further, and as I have argued in Our Times before, the underpaying of young workers may lead to intergenerational economic breakdowns, especially as boomers attempt to sell their homes to finance their retirements. Underpaid workers won't be able to buy them. It is clearly unsustainable to combine an aging population with a generation lacking the wages and savings to buoy an economy.

The ideas underpinning Poloz's comments perpetuate an unequal vision of society. But what can be done? Here are a few ideas that I think might help address, at least in part, the issue of unpaid work for young people:

1) A guaranteed annual income: A guaranteed annual income, based on the principle that every Canadian deserves a basic income regardless of their employment status, would make unpaid internships more palatable by ensuring that, if someone undertook unpaid work, they would at least have an adequate standard of living.

2) Eligibility for employment-related benefits: If unpaid work, as Poloz has argued, has positive long-term outcomes for young workers and the broader economy, then unpaid labour should count towards the hours that workers must accumulate to be eligible for unemployment insurance and maternity leave.

3) Prohibiting unpaid internships: If unpaid work has negligible benefits for nearly all who do it, we should explore banning unpaid internships, including practicums required as part of educational programs. We need to prevent employers from conditioning a generation of Canadians to believe that their labour has no value, even as employers derive value and savings from it.

4) Free post-secondary education: Free education would allow more, though not all, people to take on unpaid work (which may or may not lead to full-time employment) without a ticking time-bomb of student debt looming over them.

5) A national youth employment strategy: We could have a program to ensure that all work is paid for, and that workers are paid at least the minimum wage. Funds can be raised by taxing those companies and individuals most likely to benefit from a system in which unpaid work is seen as an informal rite of passage into employment.
And, not to be shy — one other thing might help. . . .

6) A new economic order: Ultimately, a system predicated on profit and private property will seek to both maximize and concentrate economic benefits, often leading to a society which, like ours, combines historic levels of wealth with the demand that young people work for free with no guarantees of remuneration. More democratic forms of property relations and distribution would help ensure that all work is valued, and that, as automation replaces some forms of labour, the benefits are shared in the broadest way possible, by young and middle-aged and old alike.

While some of these solutions look beyond the immediate issue at hand, the point is that Canada's unemployed and underemployed young people are not asking for the world. We don't expect six-figure wages, corner offices, and management positions right out of school, as some in the media often claim; we simply want to work, and to be paid for our work based on the basic applicable labour laws. This isn't a radical demand, but rather a call for basic human decency and respect.

Poloz's statement about what unemployed young people should do to find paid work, coming as it does from the very top of Canada's national bank, signifies that, amongst Canada's political and economic elite, there exists a belief that experience alone is sufficient remuneration for work. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is built upon misconceptions of young workers' experiences, and perpetuates an inegalitarian race to the bottom.

Christo Aivalis is a doctoral candidate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, researching the political, economic, labour, and religious history of the Canadian left. A TF (teaching fellow), he is also a member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Local 901. He was the PSAC Ontario Young Worker Representative from 2011 until recently, and sits on the Ontario Federation of Labour's Workers Under 30 Committee.

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