But free is just so cheap

When I first began to contemplate moving back to Red Lake for a job at The Northern Sun News, to be honest, I didn’t particularly want to come. I’ve got nothing against northwestern Ontario, actually I’m quite fond of the place, but I was comfortable in Montreal. I had good friends, an apartment I loved, and a special seat in my favourite pub where the servers knew exactly how I like my coffee. Everything was going well except I was broke and unemployed, living off a student line of credit.

Even with five years of university under my belt – including a specialized graduate program in journalism – loads of job experience both in Canada and abroad, and fluency in three languages, my options were unpaid internship ‘A,’ unpaid internship ‘B,’ or restaurant work. I was approaching 30, had already gone through a number of internships (only one of which paid me a modest $500 monthly stipend) and had racked up a significant amount of student debt. It was time to suck it up and come home.

The competition in larger centres, especially in media-related fields and other “glamour industries,” (a term coined by Globe and Mail writer Zane Schwartz) is unfathomable. Many employers know that, and they take advantage. In fact, the competition is so hot in certain fields, I’ve even come across ads on the free online classifieds page Cragislist that read something along these lines:

Looking for one intern. Master’s in Communications + 3-5 years experience in the field required. Position is unpaid.

Actually it’s not uncommon for employers to actually charge people to do internships.

While the issue is not a new one, it’s certainly been in the news and on my mind a lot lately. It initially flared up again in Ontario after Laurentian University student, Samantha Bokma, filed a complaint to the Ministry of Labour (MOL) about an unpaid internship being offered in the office of Barrie, ON MPP Rod Jackson.

Bokma had been working there last summer when her supervisor informed her the job wouldn’t be renewed after its end date of Aug. 30, 2013. On Aug. 29, Bokma came across a posting looking for an unpaid intern to fulfill the same duties she had been previously performing for pay.

Since then, the Ministry has tabled a bill to protect “precarious workers,” including unpaid interns.

The Ministry has also made it clear that, with a few exceptions, unpaid internships are actually illegal in Ontario. Up until last week, when I started digging into the topic, I had no idea, and I would bet there are thousands of people across the province that don’t know either.

But even if they are aware of the laws surrounding unpaid internships, I can’t imagine someone filing a complaint through the Employment Standards Act if they knew it could jeopardize their chance of getting a reference letter from the employer or landing a job with the company – or at all. It’s a vulnerable position to be in. These are the people who need to be educated on the laws surrounding unpaid internships before they begin one.

The government – both provincial and federal – has ramped up funding for skilled trades and other fields with a shortage of employees. At the same time, high schools are working to encourage students to enter these fields. But students shouldn’t be forced to go into welding or mechanics simply because it’s their only shot at a good career. Both levels of government need to work closer with post secondary institutions to cut down on the number of students admitted to programs that have a bad habit of pumping out more graduates than available jobs.

Because when young people come out of post-secondary education with years’ worth of debt and their only option in their field is to take on work for free, the consequences are many. They can’t contribute to RRSPs, they likely don’t have any health benefits, they delay starting families, they can’t get approved for mortgages, and they often spend the first decade or more of their career paying off debt before they can really start to get ahead. The issue of unpaid internships is part of a much larger, much more far-reaching problem and it’s time to get to the bottom of it.

Lindsay Briscoe

For more information on internships in Ontario, visit: www.labour.gov.on.ca.

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