Unpaid internships still demand action for exploiting young: expert

TORONTO – You must be punctual. You must own your own car. You will be emailing and calling seven days a week at all hours. You must never make spelling mistakes in emails. You should be excited to work in the music industry.

The job posting on the Indeed website for an internship with the Epstein Management music agency reads like a union leader’s nightmare, and highlights what the Liberals and the NDP say is a major concern for Canada’s labour market.

Manager and promoter Amir Epstein says he’s fielded at least two dozen applications for the position since it was first advertised in August.

“The last thing I need is to be paying someone who is completely incapable,” he said in an interview, adding he doesn’t believe his posting violates the law. “The way I see it is the experience is valuable; I want to offer something up to someone who really wants that kind of a job and give them a strong resume.”

In Ontario, where Epstein Management is located, unpaid internships are legal only under certain criteria. The placement must be educational, it must benefit the intern, it must not replace someone’s paid job, and the intern must not be promised a job at the end of the training period.

Epstein Management is far from the only company looking for unpaid interns despite Ontario’s ongoing crackdown on the practice. More than a dozen ads on the Toronto section of the Kijiji classifieds website seek volunteer labour.

They include one man seeking marketing interns for a three-month commitment of more than 15 hours a week, while another ad seeks an unpaid employee at the Eurofab fabric store in downtown Toronto who will be required to clean and tidy the store as well as serve customers.

With a federal election just days away, the youth unemployment rate sits at 13.1 per cent — almost double the national average — as about 170,000 fewer young people are in the workforce than before the recession. Critics suggest that makes young Canadians vulnerable to exploitation from those seeking free labour.

The federal NDP has been particularly critical of unpaid internships in recent years. One of the party’s harshest criticisms is that such internships encourage income inequality because only the children of wealthier families can afford to work for free.

On the campaign trail, both the NDP and the Liberals have pledged new spending on youth employment, including new jobs, co-op placements and paid internships, with the only difference being the final figure: the New Democrats say they will spend $100 million per year, while the Liberals promise more than $400 million per year for the first three years.

In an email, Conservative spokesman Stephen Lecce pointed to the party’s expansion of the health-and-safety protections for those in internships in federally regulated industries in the 2015 budget.

But labour lawyer Andrew Langille says the Harper government’s efforts didn’t go nearly far enough to address the issue of unpaid internships and didn’t seem to be a serious attempt to help vulnerable young workers.

“They took the most tepid approach with the budget, and they really didn’t do anything,” he said.

The Liberal and NDP plans each have strengths and weaknesses, Langille said, but both recognize that a tough job market makes young people more susceptible to exploitation.

“I firmly believe that they see the problems with unpaid internships and they see the damage that excess unpaid labour does to the labour market,” he said.

Langille said there’s nothing wrong with internships that provide education and skills to young people without pay, but that the current lack of protections leaves the system ripe for exploitation.

“You could literally have the entire inspection team at the Ministry of Labour focus on unpaid internships, they’re that prevalent,” Langille said.

Most internships fall under provincial jurisdiction, yet the federal government has power over certain businesses with national scope including banks, broadcasters and airlines.

Epstein defends his internship. He says that unlike other management agencies or record labels that send their interns for coffee and don’t expect much out of them, an intern working for his two-person team will learn everything about what it takes to excel in a demanding field.

“I think it’s important that the whole purpose of internship is to be able to provide people with real work experience, develop their resume, and they’re able to actually work in the music industry.”