“TELL ME HOW THIS IS DIFFERENT FROM SLAVERY?” It’s a question interns often ask—but always anonymously. That fact alone makes the case against unpaid internships self-evident.
Legions of young Canadians are desperate to find work. The competition is cut throat. They will do almost anything to prove their worth. That too often includes working for free—like slaves.
Some 300,000 Canadian students and recent graduates are not being paid for their work; instead, they’re being paid in “experience” and “connections”. But connections don’t pay the rent. Going unpaid for months on end stunts any chance of financial stability. It maroons young workers in job limbo for years.
Demanding and getting free labour is as contagious as a virus. Once one company gets infected, it’s hard to find any company willing to pay. Resistance seems futile. But not for journalism students at Concordia University in Montreal. They are taking a stand against the scourge of unpaid internships in journalism.
No unpaid work for Concordia journalism students
On January 17, 2019, Miriam Lafontaine, along with, Erika Morris and John Milton, proposed a department wide strike against unpaid internships. The Journalism Student Association voted for a one week strike in solidarity with the greater student movement against unpaid work across Quebec. The strike will begin when the broader general strike takes place across Quebec this spring.
Within a week, several other student associations at Concordia, including the Department of Communications, Political Science and the School of Community and Public Affairs held meetings to discuss whether or not to follow suite. Pressure is being put on the Concordia Student Union to call for a university-wide strike.
“I’ve had two internships,” explains Miriam, a lead organizers for the Concordia Journalism Strike, “summer 2018 I did an internship with CJAD 800. I did that for course credit, which means I was unpaid, and I paid tuition.
I also did a two week internship at a little paper in Kanawake (a First Nation reserve just outside of Montreal) that was unpaid, but I don’t see it the same way. That paper couldn’t afford to pay me, but I learned a lot. Bell Media, who owns CJAD 800, can afford to pay their interns.”
Miriam says she was lucky, “I live with my father and I have savings, so that’s how I was able to afford to do an internship.”
Miriam recognizes that not everyone is so fortunate. Students who can’t afford to do an internship while also paying tuition are often forced to seek unregulated internships that can go on for months, with no supervision from the university.
“I’ve heard of people doing internships at other stations owned by Bell such as TSN90, that lasted months that were unpaid and not for course credit.”
In Quebec, as with most of Canada, interns aren’t covered under provincial labour laws.
“There needs to be a section pertaining to interns in the labour code. I didn’t have any abusive experiences outside the abuse of working for free. When you’re doing it for course credit, there is the oversight of the university, but when you’re not doing it for credit it gets sketchy, and you can’t make any labour complaints.”
Necessary evil, or exploitative bullshit?
Internships are supposed to be a fair trade. Students do a bit of free work while meeting industry professionals and making connections that will someday lead to a job. But internships are high risk to the student, who pays for the opportunity to be there, with absolutely no risk for the company who simply benefits from free labour. In reality, internships have actually made it harder for students once they graduate.
“The earning potential of recent grads has gone way down,” Miriam explains, “a lot of entry level jobs are being given to unpaid interns rather than the company hiring someone. Unpaid internships drive down wages for journalists and contributes to the precarity of work in the field.”
The logic is simple, people don’t value work that can be done for free. This is what happened to fact-checkers. What used to be a respected job in news is now almost exclusively done by interns—for free. That takes jobs away from recent graduates, who can’t find a job in their field that pays and are forced to work for free while struggling to pay down their student loans.
Keeping the middle class out
Jenny Keen*, is a 28 year old Public Relations graduate from Humber College, she, like many other students, received no financial help from her parents. Jessica said she was “Terrified” at the idea of working for free.
“I had to leave my internship in the fall because I couldn’t afford to live.” Jenny explains, “They did give me $500 a month, but it’s basically nothing, I couldn’t even afford the transit to get there.”
Sara Chliaropoulos, who studies Communications at Concordia says she won’t even look at an internship if it’s unpaid, “I just can’t afford it,” she says bluntly. “Why get my hopes up on a cool-looking internship I could never afford to do. I’m struggling to pay tuition and make rent as it is. How am I supposed to work forty hours a week for free?”
The prevalence of unpaid internships is thinly-veiled class conscious gatekeeping.
By refusing to pay for labour, companies are only opening the door for some students: namely, the ones from high income families who can pay their way while they make meaningful connections and advance their career.
Unpaid internships limit the chances of middle and low-income students ever making the connections needed to succeed. The news media is the last place we want this to happen. The interns there will one day be the voices of all our major news sources. Diversity of voice and perspective will be limited, if not lost altogether.
Calls for a general strike
Concordia Journalism students aren’t going into this strike alone. Students from all over Quebec have united under ‘Greve Des Stages’ (GDS), a coalition demanding remuneration for intern and trainees in Québec.
On November 19, 60,000 students ditched their classes and internships to protest unpaid labour, causing Quebec’s newly elected government to promise to “look into the issue”.
GDS has called for an unlimited general strike against unpaid internships, which they hope will take place this spring. The coalition already has the support of 15 unions and 22 associations in Quebec and the rest of Canada. In order to ensure the strike is effective, the coalition wants to have the support of 20,000 students in three regions in the province.
Concordia, and other schools who voted against an unlimited strike will join the GDS when they reach their quorum. GDS plan to strike until their demands are met. Concordia journalism students will only strike for one week.
The GDS states that “Withholding labour from hundreds of environments will have significant and immediate impact that will force the province to recognize the value of trainees’ work.” Considering the provincial government relied on unpaid labour to run schools, hospitals and other social services, GDS is confident they will succeed.
Not their first rodeo
Québec students know how to strike effectively.
In March of 2011, The provincial Liberal government announced a 75% tuition increase between 2012 and 2017. It didn’t take long for students to organize.
By December 2011, 60,000 students across the province had already formed CLASSE, “Coalition Large de l’Association Pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante”, or “Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity”. The group stated it’s intent to strike and other student associations quickly followed in what became the biggest student protest in Canadian history.
Between February and September 2012, hundreds of protests took place in Quebec and on March 22, 2012, 310,000 students across Quebec were on strike; 100,000-200,000 of them were in Montreal.
The Liberals government lost the 2012 provincial election. The newly elected Parti Québecois repealed the tuition hike.
Miriam is confident a strike will work again. “Both the 2012 student strike and the 2015 anti-austerity movement, which included students, but also people working in public services, have shown that students can use striking to effectively pressure the provincial government to meet their demands and there’s no reason to think that wouldn’t work now in 2019.”
What are their demands? Labour protection, fair hourly wage and respect. Radical, isn’t it?
* Not her real name
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