Blogs & Comment

Unpaid internships are unethical and uneconomical. Time to ban them: James Cowan

Let’s stop this practice for good

Young man asleep at desk.

(Dougal Waters/Getty)

Update: It was revealed Thursday that the Ontario Ministry of Labour will begin cracking down on unpaid interns at magazines, starting with Toronto Life and The Walrus. Both magazines will have to let go of (or pay) most of their interns, who, because they are not in school, do not meet the province’s employment standards for unpaid work.

Pity the intern who starts a career at Palantir Technologies, a data management company based in Palo Alto, Calif. Interns at this nerdy Shangri-La earn more than $7,000 a month, according to a study by salary-tracking firm Glassdoor—and that’s not counting perks like flexible schedules, on-site haircuts and a company retreat known as “HobbitCon.”

Yes, pity them: their next jobs will seem hellish slogs in comparison. Unless, of course, they end up working at Palantir, which is precisely the point. Companies like Palantir, Twitter (average monthly intern salary: $6,791) and Amazon ($5,631) are ravenous for new talent. They trade job experience and a paycheque for access to the next generation of brainiacs. But it’s not the firms wooing young talent that dominate the news—it’s the ones using interns as slave labour.

A rash of lawsuits by former interns seeking compensation has broken out in the U.S., against companies including Condé Nast and the Elite Modelling agency. There have been similar lawsuits in Canada, along with high-profile cases like HootSuite, a Vancouver tech firm, amending its call for unpaid help after accusations of violating B.C. labour laws.

As the issue roils, politicians have begun pondering the best response. Liberal MP Scott Brison called upon the federal government to begin tracking unpaid internships. Jonah Schein, an NDP member of the Ontario legislature, tabled a private member’s bill in early March calling for greater legal protection for unpaid interns, along with improved tracking.

Each is a timid response to a morally and economically indefensible practice. Workers across Canada are guaranteed a minimum wage. Exceptions are only allowed with justification—such as bartenders and wait staff who often earn a lower minimum wage because they supplement their income with tips.

The rationalizations for unpaid internships don’t leap that bar. The first defence, as expressed in a recent National Post headline, goes like this: “If unpaid internships are exploitation, why don’t the kids stay home?” If only they had that choice—but many such internships are required components of college or university courses. Schools desperate to prove the practical applications of their degrees are funnelling unpaid labourers to employers: the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver was justifiably ridiculed when it advertised for four unpaid busboy “internships,” but the jobs were defended by Vancouver Community College, who said “even dishwashing” is an education.

Proponents also argue that interns are auditioning for a real job. The evidence says otherwise. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found that unpaid interns were no better at landing job offers than those who did no internship; and unpaid interns were paid an average $1,366 less in their first job than students who started cold.

But, you say, if we force companies to pay their interns, they’ll just stop offering internships. That’s no great loss, given the menial tasks and poor prospects associated with these gigs. Further, in an era of constant fretting about the mismatch of skills and opportunities in our labour market, it is unhelpful to create the perception of long-term job prospects in sectors where they simply aren’t plentiful.

Unpaid internships depress wages by creating a pool of workers willing to work for free—and for no benefits, making them akin to the labourers brought to Canada under the much-maligned temporary foreign worker program. And they rob the government of tax, employment insurance and pension revenue.

There is cost to the employers as well, one that many companies are too short-sighted to see. Constantly recruiting, training and monitoring new workers is a drain on both time and money.

If young people need real world experience, then let them gain it through co-op programs, where there is tight co-ordination between school and employer. Or just pay them for their work.

The companies that truly value—and need—young workers will pay for the privilege of getting to know them.