In exchange for another bullet point on their CVs, many McGill students feel pressured to take on underpaid positions. Participating in an on-campus club or as a non-executive in student government can require hours of labour without compensation. However, unpaid work becomes exploitative when students are expected to do the work of a full-time paid employee, without receiving the paycheck. Despite unpaid internships being illegal in Quebec, the Arts Internship Office (AIO) and some student groups such as the Pre-Law Students’ Society have still promoted internships that pay students less than half of minimum wage, if anything at all. McGill has a responsibility to promote equal opportunities for all students, and this means supporting paid career experience, not unpaid internships.
A common justification for unpaid internships is that what students give up in income, they make up in experience. However, this notion puts already privileged individuals in an even more advantageous position while dismissing the realities of other students’ financial burdens. While learning skills might be useful in getting a job post-graduation, it will not pay for a student’s groceries, rent, or tuition now. Moreover, some students are also parents, who may have mortgages to pay and families to support. The idea that students should be willing to give up a paycheck for these positions closes off career experiences to people who cannot afford to lose hundreds of dollars per week, thus deepening economic divides on campus.
“While learning skills might be useful in getting a job post-graduation, it will not pay for a student’s groceries, rent, or tuition now.”
Finances aside, unpaid internships can be incredibly demoralizing. Working overtime to balance unpaid labour with a paid position can lead to exhaustion and burnout, and seeing one’s contributions go uncredited and uncompensated can take a toll on students’ sense of self-worth. Moreover, when students are not recognized as paid employees, they can fall outside the safety net of labour law protection. In November 2018, 54,000 students took part in a week-long protest against mandatory unpaid internships across Quebec citing a need for legal protection as a main concern.
In addition to giving up valuable time, students are expected to pay for their internship credits. Students in the School of Social Work are expected to complete 800 hours of unpaid labour in order to graduate. Faculty of Arts students can also use unpaid internships with written requirements for credit. In both scenarios, McGill makes students pay to work by denying them income and then charging them to have their work recognized as credit.
While unpaid internships unfairly exploit student labour, many organizations and professional fields rely on this free labour to keep running. Some grassroots organizations and nonprofits cannot afford to hire interns. Inversely, student positions in fields such as engineering are paid generously, while full-time social work jobs receive no funding. For students to make a livable wage, institutions like the Quebec government and McGill need to reach an agreement that makes it clear that these fields, and student workers, are worth investing in, and thus need to be compensated.
As an educational institution, McGill has a responsibility to make sure its students receive a proper education. Funding internships in the field of social work and arts would ensure that all students have the opportunity to gain experience without sacrificing much-needed income. Additionally, despite being a leading Canadian university, McGill has yet to develop a co–op education program, an opportunity that other universities across the country have offered for years. Co-op programs coordinate paid employment positions that provide students an opportunity to apply knowledge from their courses in the workplace. Students need work experience in order to succeed post-graduation. However, McGill continues to refrain from making work experience a graduation requirement. In doing so, they avoid the responsibility of finding paid work options for students.
McGill should prioritize broadening the paid work opportunities for students in all faculties. This means providing more extensive job listings on the Career Planning Services website, offering comprehensive career option documents, and developing co-op programs in all faculties such as those available at dozens of other universities nation-wide. Currently, only students who have exhausted their student loans are eligible for McGill’s Work Study Program. McGill should expand this program to be available to more students regardless of their financial resources. Finally, given the unequal nature of unpaid and under internships, the AIO and McGill student groups should also immediately remove all postings for jobs that pay less than minimum wage. Getting work experience should not mean sacrificing rent or grocery money.