THE END OF UNPAID INTERNSHIPS?

April 3, 2014

by Cynthia Spring 

I am one of the unpaid interns let go from The Walrus last week. Faced with the media blowout surrounding the recent shutdown of unpaid internship programs, I feel frustrated with much of what is being said. While most commentators give a nod to how “complicated” the situation is, nothing I’ve read so far has really been able to capture the contradictions and complexities of unpaid internships as I’ve experienced them.

Some defenders of the internship system claim that, despite the obvious financial barriers many potential candidates face, these positions provide necessary access points into a workforce where entry-level jobs seem to require years of work experience. Others say that the crackdown is politically motivated, that it fails to recognize economic struggles faced by print magazines. Some critics argue that internships, for profitable and charitable fields and industries alike, are an exploitive means of acquiring cheap, temporary labour, and others say that shutting down internships is a long overdue step towards fair working conditions across the board.

These opinions leave me feeling conflicted: my internship at The Walrus provided me with the opportunity to get five months of full-time experience and training in a highly competitive field. I know that experience is worth a lot and I am grateful for it. But it also required that I work various paid contract positions on the side. This meant that my work-week often totaled upwards of sixty-five hours. My contract positions demanded strict deadlines, as did my internship, and each month I was increasingly uncertain as to whether I would be able to make rent and buy groceries. In the end, the experience turned out to be more taxing and stressful than any of my previous professional or scholarly endeavours. It’s not just because of my work ethic, however, that I managed to get by. Like most unpaid interns, I had certain privileges: my well-paying contract work comes from the connections I made at the academic institutions I previously attended as a graduate student, and my mom’s best friend has been letting me sublet her rent-controlled apartment with three of my good friends.

I did, of course, knowingly sign up for The Walrus internship program, and I never complained to my employers about my struggles with finances and time management—I loved the work I was doing and was willing and able to make the necessary sacrifices in order to keep my job. When I was offered the position five months ago, I was ecstatic to get my foot in the door and eager to gain some valuable experience at the magazine. Despite my embarrassment every time I told someone that no, I wasn’t paid for my labour, I can honestly say that, unlike any full-time job I’ve had before, I was stimulated by and satisfied with much of the work I was doing.

But the question of unpaid labour didn’t go away. Partway into my internship, we found out that the Ministry of Labour was investigating our program. The group of interns I worked with started to reflect on our experience differently. This was mostly due to a piece of legislation that came to our attention—something none of us were familiar with prior to accepting our positions. As I learned more about why the Ministry of Labour was looking into our program, I began to wonder: Am I an intern or an employee? The lack of a wage categorized me as the former, but the work I was doing might actually have placed me in the latter. The distinction between value-added labour and training proved to be more ambiguous than it might seem.

Last Thursday, March 27th, our employers and mentors at The Walrus sat us down to break the news: the magazine’s internship programs would cease to exist come April 1st. After inspecting the internship program months earlier, the Labour Board had decided that the work being done by magazine’s full-time unpaid interns legally required a wage. We were told that we would have to stop work immediately because the magazine could not afford to compensate us for our time.

Having now had a week to process this decision, I am not sure that holding up two high-profile magazines as examples of what many are calling immoral and illegal labour practices is the right way to go about protecting young people from exploitive unpaid internships. It has become increasingly clear, however, that something needs to be done to better regulate on-site training programs designed for young people entering the workforce.

Over the past week, a number of former interns have offered compelling critiques of the social and economic forces that undervalue workers and perpetuate a system of exclusion and in some cases exploitation. On Monday, former Toronto Life intern Micah Luxen, who is now interning at the United Nations in New York, spoke up about the contradictions she continues to experience in the field: “It always blows my mind that journalists think that journalists shouldn’t be compensated for what they do, like their work has no value… The system is broken, and I agree that I am enabling that system.” On Tuesday, Hazlitt senior editor Alexandra Molotkow, who got her start as a Walrus intern, called for greater financial support for those who could benefit the most from educational internships, in order to “allow participants to demonstrate their talents firsthand, as well as forge connections they may not have inherited.”

It’s refreshing to read accounts that attend to the contradictions of unpaid internships: former interns acknowledging the necessity and even the value of such positions without being complacent with the “paying one’s dues” argument. The harsh truth is that in many fields there are more interns than available jobs; while some interns might move on to full-time permanent positions, others will have to go back to school, take on a service job, or apply to yet another internship. You could say, as some have, that this is all part of the game, especially considering that many interns are already coming from positions of privilege. To be sure, there are far more exploited classes of workers in Canada—temporary migrant workers, domestic workers, sex workers, to name a few. But the fact remains that we interns take a huge risk when we agree to work for free. Our economic and social vulnerability requires significantly more oversight.

Over the past week, I’ve found myself being asked whether I’d like to have been paid for the work I did as an intern. Sure. Would I do unpaid or underpaid labour in my field again? Probably. In fact, by writing this article, I am working for free. In creative industries, this is where most of us have to start. I get it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish things were different.

I realize that my willingness to work for free has closed doors to other qualified interns unable to do so. Unpaid internships perpetuate a gate-keeping mechanism that ensures only the financially stable and well-connected young people can grab onto the bottom rung of the increasingly slippery ladder. But  when I took the position fresh out of my MA, an unpaid internship seemed like my best option. I am also aware that by agreeing to an exchange that does not financially value my time and work, I am helping to drive down the value of paid employees’ labour in my own field. Now that I’m no longer working as an intern, I would like to think more concretely about how things could be otherwise.

I’ve been reading about the problems young workers face in a workforce that demands more and more overtime, self-marketing, flexibility, and smiles for a while now. I’m writing an article about women’s historical struggles against unpaid and underpaid labour in the context of an increasingly feminized creative class. It is now clear to me that these political and theoretical issues are inseparable from the lived experience of the intern.

Cynthia Spring’s forthcoming article will be included in our next issue, “Women’s Work.” Look for Issue Two on gutsmagazine.ca on April 22.

 

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