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Unpaid Labour

March 9th, 2012     by Sarah Feldbloom     Comments

Several articles released by North American newspapers and internet publications over the past year have voiced a backlash to the standardization of unpaid internships as replacements for entry level jobs.

Pieces in The Globe and Mail, Macleans, and most recently Reuters tell the stories of young workers who are speaking out against this fad.

In the current issue of Shameless, which centers around the theme of “labour,” Carley Centen of anti-unpaid-internship site internsheep.wordpress.com looks at how this transition has come about. Check out her article to learn about provincial employment standards which define what legal and illegal unpaid work means.

In this podcast you’ll hear from eight people on their experiences with unpaid internships in industries across the board - what was good, what wasn’t, and how necessary they feel it is to take on unpaid work in order to gain footing in their chosen fields.

Take a listen here:

For a transcription of ‘Unpaid Labour’ read on:

Sarah Feldbloom: Hello! I’m Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer, Sarah Feldbloom. Welcome to our podcast! Throughout the past year, it seems like everyone’s been talking about the normalization of unpaid internships, and what this means for young workers. The Globe and Mail, Macleans and most recently Reuteurs released features which re-hash the inequities of our current labour market, and talk about why more and more entry level jobs are being replaced by free work opportunities being called “internships.”

In our current issue of our print magazine which centers around the theme of “labour” Carley Centen of anti-unpaid-internship site internsheep.wordpress.com lends her voice to this discussion from a Shameless perspective. Check out her piece to find information about rights around unpaid work, and to read about youth who are speaking out against it.

In this podcast you’ll hear from eight people in professions across the board about their experiences working unpaid internships - from dietetics, to fundraising, social work, communications, pharmacy, publishing, child and youth care, and journalism. They’ll tell us what was positive, what was negative and whether they think starting out with unpaid work is necessary in order to succeed in their fields.

[Sound up on intern profiles]

Adele: My name is Adele Gagnon. I am now a registered dietician, and I live in Sudbury, Ontario and I’m originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland. I did an unpaid internship that was ten months long and it was a series of rotations in all the different areas where you could likely get a job once you became a registered dietician so I worked in several different types clinical settings inside the hospital and then I also worked in a community aspect and a food services aspect. During our clinical internship we would go in and pretty much shadow the dietician that was working for the first—towards the beginning of the rotation but once we were at the end rotation we would take-up pretty much all of the duties of the dietician. So that would be to go see patients we saw in the hospital. It was probably one of the most helpful aspects of my degree just because I guess my job is so practical and that just gave me hands on, practical experience.

In my situation we couldn’t qualify for student loans because we didn’t qualify as students anymore, but we also didn’t get paid and didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance so it was really frustrating. And I, with a lot of help from my parents, didn’t end up having to get student loans while I was doing university but then I had to get a line of credit just for that one year that I was not making any money and working full-time and unable to really hold another job. That was other thing; we also had to—we were working full-time, so it would have been really difficult to have a job on the side because were expected to do projects and just other things in addition to our 9-to-5 work.

Oh my god, there would be so many challenges if you were a single parents or, you know, something that that you don’t get any funding for and you’re trying to do this because you know you have to do it to get a job, and then…but you need to have money at the same time or just I guess had other really huge financial responsibilities that, you know, you couldn’t deal with. Ultimately, your learning experience would be hugely compromised if you had to take on another job or something.

I think that a lot of the reason why there’s no paid internships in dietetics versus work terms in engineering is that it’s female-dominated and that, I don’t know, we haven’t been around for that long and nobody really fights, you know, for the people that come after them and it’s more of a rite of passage sometimes and once you’re done you’re just like ‘Oh, I’m so glad that’s over’ but then you don’t really give it a second thought, so it’s hard to ever move forward from that.

Emily: So, my name’s Emily Marx I’m a third year Social Work student studying in Etobicoke but I live in Thornhill, Ontario. The first internship I did was a three month placement at a mental health organization and there I was involved in support group facilitation for different people with a variety of mental health issues, and I also helped with a mentorship program through that organization, and currently I’m doing a full year placement at a hospice in Etobicoke where I’m working with the Coordinator of Bereavement Care.

At my first internship at the Mental Health Association I was doing a lot of behind the scenes work through the mentorship program. So, I was working on revising their documents and being in touch with some of the people who were involved with the program, and then periodically I would sit in, shadowing the facilitators of the support groups—some of those were during the day and some were during the evenings.

I really enjoyed my internships. I think they were a great way to combine what I was learning in the classroom while gaining experience in the field. I found it helpful because I received a lot of one-on-one support from people who are doing the work I aspire to and I made a lot of good connections and have really been able to practice and improve on the skills that I started my program with.

I found them to be more positive on my end because I’ve been given really interesting tasks. I’ve been involved with great training in terms of training before I started my placement as well as training throughout to improve my skills and help me do some of the work that I’m doing. That was for support group facilitation; I’ve had some great training there. And I’ve also just had the opportunity to be involved with a variety of things. So none of it was very static or boring, it was really interesting and there was a variety of work.

I’m okay with interning for free. I of course would rather be paid for the work I do, but I feel that I do get a sufficient amount of experience from it and something that I feel I benefit from, though I do look forward to eventually transitioning to the paid workforce. I think there are people who would choose to not be in this program because there is a significant component that involves unpaid work but of the majority of my classmates and myself, they do find a way to do this unpaid work, be a full-time student, and many do have jobs on the side.

In my experiences I felt that I’ve been given really worthwhile tasks that I felt were…that I was happy to do in an unpaid fashion, but there have been some classmates who spend most of their days photocopying and faxing and for them, they’ve expressed that it’s not worth their time or their free labour, but I so far have had positive experiences in internships.

Rebecca: My name is Rebecca Ronson and I’m a third year Pharmacy student, I live in Toronto and I’m from Bowmanville, Ontario. I have only been working in a pharmacy student for the past year-and-a-half…I’m a Pharmacy student at a pharmacy in downtown Toronto, and I’m able to…well, I first started out just mostly being cashier and doing Pharmacy Technician responsibilities like counting pills, that sort of thing, but as my boss began to know me and understand what I could be capable of, he allowed me to start counselling patients and doing other things that a pharmacist would do.

Not this past summer but the summer before I was doing a one month internship at a hospital in downtown Toronto in their Cardiac Care Intensive Care Unit. It was really good for me, I felt, I learned a lot. Unfortunately, it did end up being unpaid—the internship can be paid or unpaid, I think most of the hospitals weren’t paying their students unfortunately. But I still felt it was worthwhile and since I ended up fulfilling the program requirements I wasn’t upset about that. As a pharmacy student you actually can’t do anything unless it’s under the direct supervision of a pharmacist, so my days would usually just start out in the pharmacy and I would usually do some work on the computer that was sort of related to answering question online in this open forum for the pharmacy students, that was also part of the program requirements. While I was doing that my pharmacist-mentor would put through orders on the computer and then we would usually go do rounds which took sometimes between two to three hours, so you go from patient’s bed, to patient’s bed and then…with the multi-disciplinary team you go over each case and they talk about the plan for them, short-term and long-term in the unit. And we would usually do some best possible medication histories, so I would interview the patients and talk about what medication they’d been taking and what new medications they were going to be taking when they would leave and how to go through that whole process.

Interning has been helpful for me, it exposed me to a hospital pharmacy during the internship, and now I’m in a community pharmacy so I was able to see both sides of pharmacy.

To put it bluntly, my tuition at UofT Pharmacy is I think about $14,000 now—that’s per year. So, I feel like that’s very expensive and some of the units are even sort of self-study units so you’re not even getting hands-on experience a lot of the time. So I feel like part of the program requirement to be able to actually do things hands-on and work with a pharmacist, it was almost worth it more than being in class. There is going to be another internship when I’m going to be in fourth year and that’s called SPEP, the Structured Practical Experience Program, and that internship you actually do pay tuition in order to do it, and it’s a program requirement, as well.

It would have been nice to have been paid but I don’t think for pharmacy students it’s as much as a concern just because our tuition is already so high and most people have huge loans or their parents are able to help them financially, so for us I don’t think making that minimum-wage or just above minimum-wage amount of money would actually make that much of a difference.

Shoshanah: Hi, I’m Shoshanah Erlich, I’m a 3rd year Child and Youth Care student at Ryerson and I’m currently living in Toronto. Indirectly, and in sort of more grassroots activist kind of ways, I’ve been working in the field probably since I was probably about 16, and started volunteering and started actively working shortly after graduating high school was probably my first job in the field, and I think now I’m doing my third unpaid internship. The first two were from when I was taking a Sign Language Interpreting Program at George Brown College, so with those what I was doing was following a sign language interpreter around to their assignments. A lot of the time I was just observing and providing some support to the interpreting team in these assignments and at times I would also be taking on some responsibility for, you know, a small portion of the interpretation.

The internship that I’m doing right now is as a Child and Youth Care student at Ryerson and what that involves is right now I’m working in a children’s mental health agency that works specifically with deaf and hard of hearing children and youth and their families, and I’m sort of doing a whole bunch of things. I’m in a classroom with students in the morning, and in the afternoon I’m doing stuff around the agency, and I’m working with a couple clients one-on-one…and yeah. I’m really—I love my internship, I wake up in the mornings and I’m excited to go and I just love that experience of working with clients, and I think it’s really helpful to me because it puts me a lot closer to the specific work that I want to be doing; I really do want to be taking on more of a clinical counselling role in the work that I do with people and that’s very hard to break into actually getting paid to do that if you don’t have the experience, so I find very helpful and just the staff and everyone in this environment are so wonderful and supportive that it’s just an amazing opportunity.

As much as I can say that it’s a really great experience I would not be fully honest if I said that it’s not really frustrating sometimes that, not only is it that we’re not being paid for the work that we do—because I can kind of understand, especially in community services—not that it’s fair and not that it’s right but why it ends up working out like that, but what I find very is that as students we are expected to incur all of the costs associated with our internship. Schools don’t necessarily have any kind of way of saying, ‘Well, if your doctor is charging you $80 for a TB test, and that’s something that you need or it’s going to be $50 or $80 to get your vulnerable sector screening to be working with vulnerable populations, if that’s going to put you in a position of financial hardship, it’s too bad for you; I guess you can’t do your internship and I guess you’re not going to be able to graduate from your program.’

Amber: My name is Amber Matthews and right now I’m a part-time faculty member at Fanshawe College. I was most recently working in the non-profit sector in fundraising and I live in London, Ontario. I did an unpaid internship through CIDA in Belize overseas and then I did a paid internship through my graduate program in Fundraising and Non-Profit Management.

The one where I was working for CIDA I was working as part of a project through their governance initiatives and I was working with the Belizean government in a department called Youth for the Future, and my role there was to assist the government in starting a series of youth-led groups that were seeking to target issues in their communities. And then as part of my graduate program in Fundraising and Non-Profit Management I did an internship with a children’s hospital in Mississauga. That one was paid, though.

For internships, or you know for interns, especially when you’re starting out, no two days are the same. You often don’t have a role that’s sort of set with a job description in a lot of cases, and your role is really to assist others in whatever they’re doing. So when I was working in Belize with a member of the local government and it was really just a matter of doing whatever needed to be done, whether it was creating posters, doing some outreach in the community… And then when I was working in fundraising that one was a little more structured. The job had a bit of a job description. I was required to assist the president with fundraising. So my day consisted of writing grant proposals, writing copy for brochures, you know, anything that really needed to be done is the role of the intern, especially when you’re just starting out.

My internship with the children’s hospital directly led into a job, which I kept, I worked there for two years. I think it depends on the field; in particular, in non-profit fundraising it’s really an experience-driven field so it’s hard to get your foot in the door for the first job. I lucked out. I got an internship—and I specifically when I looked for an internship was identifying ones that had an opportunity to hang out for future employment. So it’s really difficult because you want to get the experience of doing a good internship but then you don’t want to waste three months or four months just doing a job that doesn’t pan out into anything.

I think the idea of the unpaid internship is really growing and it’s a bit overused. I see it a lot with students in the program that I went to; I think almost 50% of the internships are unpaid and that’s really bothersome because I think students are coming out with—in my case I had seven years of education, so why wouldn’t I deserve to get paid?

Erin: My name is Erin Pehlivan, I live in Mississauga, and I work in Social Media. I made a conscious effort not to take an unpaid internship. My first was through York University’s international internship program and I was placed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for three months and York paid for my expenses. My second was at a film festival in Toronto and they paid as well; they paid a monthly stipend and it was part-time. And I did another internship that was along the same lines as that, which paid a bi-weekly stipend and was very beneficial to my career. They offered a lot at this internship position.

When I worked at Canadian Education Centre I would arrive at work and I wouldn’t really know how to communicate with my co-workers because they spoke Vietnamese and I spoke English, and even though it was a great experience—I was doing graphic design and a little bit of communication, kind of branding work – the company was jeopardized in the middle of my internship and closed. We kind of stayed open a few more months after that, but it was kind of an unstable place to be and I’m really glad I only did it for one summer.

The other two internships I did were in the film industry. They were both companies that I really, really respect and they treat their employees really well. So again, that was a lot of communication work and a lot of promotional work with film companies and communities across Canada and mailing out promotional materials to these Canadian communities that didn’t have access to film, so we would send them Canadian, international, and foreign films, and they were both great.

One of the things that I enjoyed most was how organized it was. Every month—it was a three month internship—my supervisor would check-up on me and he would ask me ‘What do you expect from this internship?’, ‘What do you expect from me as a supervisor?’ and there was constant feedback and I found that to be extremely helpful and it made me feel really comfortable and confident that I was doing well, and if there was anything that I made a mistake on they was very honest about it and would tell me right away and it was just such a great experience.

You have to be of a certain class almost to be able to afford an unpaid internship. You have to, you know, maybe live with your parents, not have any debt from university of school. Yeah, I mean, you might even have to work part-time after your internship or on the weekends and things like that and it just doesn’t seem very practical…it seems not fair because you’re not even guaranteed a job at the end. I don’t work for any of the companies I interned for. So, yeah…I really strongly disagree with it [unpaid internships]. I think that it’s illegal and I really think that the government really needs to work towards figuring out a solution.

Shannon: My name is Shannon Whibbs and currently I’m the Managing Editor at Dundurn Press and I was born in Calgary but raised in Toronto and I’ve always been working in various parts of the publishing industry and I got my start in magazines briefly as an intern and then ended up in books. I used to work at Harlequin, the romance novel company, I was proofreading there for a couple of years and then I was House of Anansi and now I’m at Dundurn.

One thing I’ve noticed actually in more recent days is that people have one, two, three, multiple internships. When I did my internship it was 2001 so a good ten odd years ago, and I don’t think I knew anyone who did more than one internship. You got an internship and either you got a job out of it or you didn’t but you just kept applying to jobs until you got one but I never even considered taking more than one internship even though it didn’t result in immediate employment.

I interned at a fashion magazine and it was really exciting; I’ve never been a huge fashiony person, but it seemed like the most exciting magazine to work for and I was thrilled to get the opportunity there, and I had a really positive experience overall. I was very lucky. The person I reported to, she took genuine interest in assigning me tasks and actually letting me do stuff. I’d heard some terrible stories about—I won’t name any names—but other publications where interns were forced to sit in the hall and fact check over the phone and never really got anything interesting to do and I got to write some articles and I had a couple by-lines and some of the editorial staff were really great and paid attention to my work and corrected me and gave me the opportunity to, you know, pursue little projects. It was all really small scale stuff; they weren’t giving me giant features or anything but it was a great opportunity and they ended up extending my internship. I was only supposed to be there for six weeks and I stayed for almost two months an then actually their copy editor went on her honeymoon and they hired me, I got to copyedit the magazine for two weeks, which for someone fresh out of the Centennial publishing program was a really huge deal.

So, mainly what I did, I fact-checked, I wrote little bits of copy, I proof read—a lot of proofreading—sometimes they made me do research for articles. The now defunct Fashion 18 magazine, unfortunately, was just launching at the time so I had to do a lot of cold calling which wasn’t really my forte. There were articles on yoga studios and cars for teens, and I’d have to call these yoga studios or call dealerships and ask these questions and try to get them to admit if any celebrities used their services and it was all terribly embarrassing.

As I said I got to deal a lot with the managing editor. He ended up being a really important mentor for me and he really paid attention to my work and was really sure to let me know when I was on the right track and I got a lot of positive reinforcement and even got a little experience to write copy, so I got to do a lot there. It was pretty great.

Actually, the great thing—and this was one of my favourite stories for a while—I ended up getting my first job in Canadian publishing at House of Anansi Press directly through a contact that I made through my internship. And it was one of those stories that you hate to hear from other people, where they say ‘Oh, I went to a party and I met someone and I got a card, and I got a job interview, and I got a job!’ And that actually was me. That’s how I left Harlequin and got back into Canadian publishing and so I was at Anansi and now I’m at Dundurn. I was at a party and I ran into the former Managing Editor, or I guess Publisher of Fashion and she knew someone at Anansi and it all kind of lined up. So in that case, that’s not going to happen for everybody, that’s sort of the dream, but making those contacts and just having that experience. You’ll meet a lot of interesting people at your internship and if you’re lucky you’ll meet some people who want to help you. I know when we get interns now where I work currently I try very hard, if we can’t keep them on, I try to reach out into my network of contacts and try and help them find something else or give them other leads and sometimes those leads lead to other things.

I do find it upsetting when I hear about people who have been interning for, you know, months, over a year, just internship after internship and not making any money and their labour is valuable. Sometimes it’s nice to hear, even where possible it’s nice to hear when people can offer an honorarium, which still doesn’t pay the rent in Toronto or anywhere else really, but it’s better than nothing I guess. But yeah, I have complicated feelings about it, because I did it, and it’s made to feel like it’s the norm in the industry and maybe that’s wrong, I don’t know. But I know that the reality is that in arts industries, media and especially in publishing, where resources are at the most limited they’ve ever been that unpaid internships are something that we kind of thrive on. But I don’t like to see or hear about interns being taken advantage of.

Takara: My name is Takara Small, I live in Toronto, I graduated from Ryerson University in the year 2010 and I guess I would classify myself as a professional journalist now; I have the degree and everything to prove it. Before I started Ryerson I actually interned at my local paper which was the Cobourg Daily Star and was taken on as a freelancer afterwards and so before I even started university I was already working in the field.

Built into the curriculum is the fact that you have to do unpaid internship at a company and I did my unpaid internship at CBC. That was, I guess, one of the most important internships from my point of view professionally because it taught me so much about online news and how to put together a story and work to deadline in a real news environment. My other unpaid internship was Canadian Immigrant Magazine, it’s owned by TorStar and it’s a free magazine, you can pick up at any subway station. It’s aimed at primarily newcomers or immigrants who have lived in Canada within the last ten years. And my third unpaid internship was Eye Weekly Magazine, which is now called The Grid. Eye Weekly and Canadian Immigrant—well, like I said The Grid as it’s called now, are both owned by TorStar—so they’re actually located in the same building and actually within the same office.

So, I was very lucky because I started working for Canadian Immigrant Magazine in the summer of…I believe 2008 and it was a three month internship, unpaid, and I loved it there so much that after I was done I asked to stay on and work with Eye Weekly. Typically I would show up around 9, 10 o’clock and leave around 1, 2pm depending if I had to work, (I worked in retail throughout university) and if I didn’t have to work, I would stay until 5, end of day. It was great; I did a lot of freelancing, wrote a lot of articles, updated social media sites, pretty much anything you would expect of an employee.

And then when I was at CBC, it’s actually part of the curriculum, so from 9 to 5 I would work at CBC monitoring social media sites, writing stories, editing content, sometimes shooting multimedia work. I did that for twelve weeks. I think depending on the organization an internship is an invaluable experience that you really can’t get anywhere else. I know when I was at Ryerson we would do this thing called ‘streeters’ where you would go out, find a story, and report on it using sometimes just a pen and paper or using video equipment, and that was helpful, but it’s a little different when you’re in an actual newsroom and…you have a lot more liabilities, you have supervisors who are counting on you to do the work to produce the results as necessary for TV or online, so in that way it was great and I was very lucky I guess because I worked at Canadian Immigrant Magazine and I was offered a freelance position after and it was the same with CBC, so after my twelve week internship was over I was asked to stay on and work at the organization doing nights and weekends, sometimes two days a week depending on how much help they needed.

Internships—and I can only talk from my experience—in the journalism field, I feel is very classist, simply because doing an internship is great if you can afford to do it, but there are a lot of people who can’t. And the only reason I could do these internships, and it was very difficult for me because, you know, I have a twin brother in college and I’m a child of a single mother so I had OSAP debts and still have a lot of outstanding OSAP debts and was working three, four jobs to do this but I knew I had no other choice because I knew that if I didn’t take these internships I wouldn’t get the necessary work experience. So in that way, it’s unfortunate because you kind of have to…there were a lot of times where I had to choose between eating dinner or working for free, so the downside is that you could be doing the same amount of work as an employee, but you’re not afforded the same rights. But the great thing is, so far in my experiences, every organization I’ve worked for has valued the time and commitment I’ve put into the job and they’ve kept me on as a freelancer. I’ve never worked for a company so far, that did not reward me in the end for the work I put in, but that’s not to say that I haven’t heard from friends who’ve worked for companies and ended up with nothing.

[Sound up on final monologue]

Sarah Feldbloom: Hi there, you’ve been listening to Unpaid Labour, a podcast about what eight people think of working for free. I’m Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer Sarah Feldbloom. If you’re interested in learning more, grab a copy of our labour issue, and take a look at ‘Intern Concerns: Opportunities for Gathering Experience or Simply Unequal Opportunities?’ written by Carley Centen. And if you have a story or a comment you’d like to share – post it on our blog at Shamelessmag.com. Thanks so much for joining us. Talk to you again soon!!


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