Last semester, with finals still looming, I began to contemplate what to do for the summer. A lot, or very little, can be accomplished in four months. After applying to several positions, I landed a full-time marketing internship close to home with a small company that seemed very professionally enriching. The only issue was that it was unpaid.
I ended up taking the internship and working part-time on top of that. It was a great experience, and I learned what day-to-day life in an office is about. It would have been ideal to be paid minimum wage, or worked part-time, but instead I ended up working exhausting 13 hour days between my two jobs. Even then, I didn’t make nearly enough money for the incoming year. While I’m lucky to have parents with the resources to cover the shortfall, for many this isn’t possible.
The ethics of unpaid internships seemed to be the major debate this past summer. While unpaid internships have existed for years, they have become more necessary to achieving the holy grail of a paid job within one’s field, and students everywhere—myself included—are lining up to work for free.
Recently, some have argued that the student part of the equation should be cut off. Students, they feel, should just say “No” to unpaid internships. While appealing in theory, it is unreasonable to ask students to give up an opportunity for the purported ‘good’ of the general populace.
Instead, companies must be the ones to change. At the moment, each province has its own Labour or Employment Standards Act, which tries to stem the surge of unpaid labour. Ontario’s act, for example, specifies that a company employing an unpaid student must derive “little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained,” and that such a trainee must not displace a paid employee. Many are also suggesting that unpaid internships must qualify for course credit at academic institutions. This is starting to take hold at McGill, where there are dedicated departments which aid in locating internships and offering course credit for them, such as the Arts Internship Office. However, the most effective means of combating the negative effects of unpaid internships would be a more vigorus enforcement of labor laws. While such efforts would come at a cost to both governments and schools, it would certainly pay dividends for society.