UNPAID INTERNSHIPS AND THE FEMINIZATION OF THE CREATIVE CLASS
More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful
in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.
— Silvia Federici
Wages Against Housework
Last October I moved to Toronto to work as an editorial intern at The Walrus magazine. On March 27, 2014, my unpaid internship came to an abrupt end. This action marked the first stage in a province-wide crackdown on unpaid internships, implemented by Ontario’s Liberal government. After ordering Toronto Life and The Walrus to either close down their unpaid internship programs or pay their interns minimum wage, the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced its plans to investigate a number of internships in varying sectors across the province.
When I was offered the position at The Walrus six months ago, I had few illusions about unpaid internship programs. Most young people I know see unpaid or underpaid work as an embarrassing step toward adulthood; almost like puberty, the internship is a moment that everyone tries to get through as quickly as possible, an unpleasant rite of passage for young professionals in training. Due to low or unpaid wages, the internship is also reserved for the privileged: it’s nearly impossible to get a line of credit or loan when working for free, significantly narrowing the scope of candidates able to take on such a position. When I accepted the internship at one of Canada’s most prestigious magazines, I think it’s fair to say that although I was excited to get my foot in the door, it was certainly not without hesitation.
As I’ve said before, my internship at The Walrus provided me with an opportunity to get five months of full-time experience in a highly competitive field. Like most unpaid interns I had certain privileges afforded to me: my well-paying contract work came 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. Already a member of exclusive social and academic circles, I managed to find a temporary place within an increasingly inaccessible creative industry. I did, of course, willingly sign up for the program, and I never complained to my employers about my struggles with finances and time management—I loved the work I was doing.
But the question of unpaid labour did not go away. Partway into my unpaid internship I found out that the Ministry of Labour was investigating the program. The group of interns I worked with started to reflect on whether or not our labour was benefitting our employer. This was partly due to a piece of legislation that came to our attention—something none of us were familiar with prior to accepting our positions. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, an employer does not have to pay an intern if the internship program meets six requirements. If the program fails to meet all of the conditions, however, the intern must be paid minimum wage, for she is technically an employee. While most of the conditions are quite obvious (the employer never told the intern she would be paid, the training is for the benefit of the intern), there is also a requirement that the “employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.”
I inevitably 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. This distinction—between value-added labour and training—proved to be more complicated than it might seem.
During my time at The Walrus, I found it difficult to consider my role as the happy and obliging volunteer-labourer without turning to feminism. While it’s true that, over the past four decades, many women in Canada have successfully integrated themselves into the waged and salaried fields, unpaid and underpaid labour still falls primarily onto the shoulders of women. This is a symptom of an increasingly feminized workforce. (By feminized labour, I am referring to the menial and undervalued work that often goes unrecognized, especially in a workforce that demands unwavering commitment to work, in exchange for casual and contract labour.) As labour becomes increasingly feminized—as paid positions demand more overtime, self-marketing, flexibility, and smiles—the distinction between labour that merits compensation and labour that does not begins to collapse.
The debate over unpaid labour is not new to feminism. To name one of many work-for-equality movements in the twentieth century, the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s saw middle-class housewives speaking out against their roles as caregivers and homemakers. One strategy to eschew the role of housewife was to pursue the path of the “career woman,” as a waged worker proving her abilities among men. Alternatively, some feminist groups demanded wages for the domestic labour that women have always provided without proper compensation, in an attempt to make visible the quiet exploitation of women that has nurtured and sustained the male workforce.
These feminist movements had radically different outcomes, but both can be useful when attempting to think through the predicament of the unpaid and underpaid intern. As Madeleine Schwartz wrote in Dissent last year: “Compliant, silent, and mostly female, interns have become the happy housewives of the working world.” To fully explore the dilemma of the intern, then, we should look to these historical struggles for jobs and fair wages as models for determining how we can demand fair wages for our work in the future.
HOUSEWIVES OF THE WORKING WORLD
Young people in Canada are often told they can do whatever job they want. It’s a part of our inheritance: we grow up knowing we live in a country of equal opportunity. We don’t need to look very far, however, to see that “equality” has been (and in many cases still is!) a myth for most people except a privileged few. In the ’60s and ’70s a group of predominantly white middle-class women struggled to get out of the kitchen and into the workforce—all in the pursuit of gender equality. It was during this time that women worked to create a liberal feminism that served to dispel the myth that females are collectively inclined to find happiness in the domestic sphere. In The Feminine Mystique (1965), Betty Friedan famously identifies the cheerful American housewife as a role that conceals the exploitation of women’s labour under the façade of happiness. If the housewife is happy, then women’s uncompensated domestic and reproductive labour is not exploitive but fair. Inspired by second-wave liberal feminism like Friedan’s, some women began to pursue waged work outside of the home.
Friedan’s feminism helped to expose inequality in an economic system that asked men to work for wages and women to work for free. It is now commonly accepted that not all women are happy being housewives: if a woman doesn’t enjoy doing (or more often, can’t afford to do) reproductive and domestic work full time, she should pursue a meaningful career outside of the home. Dismantling the myth of the happy housewife granted women more opportunities as productive workers; today, women are no longer bound exclusively to the domestic space, but have integrated themselves into the working world.
But in its drive to create equal opportunities for women in the workforce, liberal feminism helped to sustain the devaluation of certain types of work—namely the work of bearing and raising children and overseeing the domestic realm. While middle-class housewives left the home to find their place in the office, they failed to challenge the distinction between work that merits fair wages and work that does not. In order to pursue the path of the career woman, many housewives hired women from less privileged demographics to fill their old roles as poorly compensated labourers in the home. Dismantling the role of housewife by choosing to seek fulfilling work elsewhere didn’t abolish the need for underpaid or unpaid domestic work. Rather, this work-for-equality movement served to further conceal the fact that the exploitation of women’s work is integral to oppressive social and economic relations.
Nearly forty years later, the young intern who finds herself willing and able to volunteer her time out of love for her work resembles those happy housewives of the past. It is worth noting that the internship is always temporary. Unlike the housewife, the cheerful intern is vaguely promised fair wages in some not-so-distant future. In the words of its advocates, unpaid training is yet another stepping-stone toward independence, a necessary extension of one’s education. But the truth is that unpaid internships perpetuate a gate-keeping mechanism that ensures only financially stable and well-connected young people can grab onto the bottom rung of the ladder. What’s more, Ross Perlin writes in Intern Nation, this “race to the bottom” ultimately determines whether specific tasks are in fact worthy of monetary compensation: “Every time young people scramble for an unpaid position, they reinforce the flawed perception that certain kinds of work have lost all value.”
The work that I agreed to do for free at The Walrus not only served to exclude less privileged young people from the creative class, but it also supported the argument that, in my field, there are certain tasks that are not valuable. As Perlin goes on to argue, this should not just be a concern for unpaid interns, but a concern for all workers in fields where workers labour for free.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
My good friend Chris enrolled in a book-publishing program in Toronto this year. Nearing the end of the semester, her instructors held a class on the job market and internships. Chris and her classmates were encouraged to apply for any available internship that interested them, and they were told that these positions are the best opportunities to kick-start a new career. Chris’s instructors advised the class to be their most enthusiastic and flexible selves once they landed an internship. They insisted that the passionate intern who happily performs any task and quickly adapts to the demands of her workplace demonstrates a commitment to the highly competitive field, which will, in turn, set her ahead of the pack. Two weeks later, Chris landed an unpaid editorial internship at a Toronto publishing house.
Years ago, my sister was given similar advice before starting an unpaid, two-month internship as part of her graduate degree in science communications. She tells me now that while this internship didn’t really focus on skill-building, the position did lead to a series of part-time contracts and eventually a full-time salaried job. Similarly, my childhood friend, Natasha, completed a forty-six week, unpaid internship in a number of hospitals across Ontario as the final requirement before taking the Canadian Dietetic Registration Exam to become a registered dietician. Nearing the end of her undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Food, she was encouraged by her professors and mentors to take on this highly competitive position that required her to travel in a personal vehicle every day without any financial support from her undergraduate university, the Ontario Student Assistance Program, or the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (which oversaw the internship program). Natasha told me that she acquired twice as much debt during one year of interning than she did throughout her four years of undergraduate studies. After a year or two of part-time work, she now holds a full-time, maternity-leave contract.
In their pursuit of professional development, these women were all taught to be grateful for whatever opportunity came their way, even if it left them without an income, health-care benefits, or basic protection in the workplace. While none of the women mentioned above could support themselves without a paycheck, they somehow found ways around this problem—through parental support, dodgy lines of credit, weekend service jobs, and cheap accommodation. Despite these precarious conditions, internships have functioned for these women as a necessary step toward doing what they love and becoming what they have set out to be. By volunteering their time, they were provided with networking opportunities and were granted permission to add some experience to their resumé. Like the pin money a husband gives to his housewife for her own use, this “gift” exchange has benefitted each of them individually, in one way or another.
In an era where the worker must be flexible, innovative, and motivated by her passions rather than money, the abundance of unwaged feminized labour in the workforce should not be taken lightly. As Miya Tokumitsu argues in her recent Jacobin piece, the popular “Do What You Love” (DWYL) mantra has justified the ongoing devaluation of workers in those “so-called lovable professions.” For Tokumitsu, women’s labour is particularly compromised by DWYL:
[A] damaging consequence of DWYL is how ruthlessly it works to extract female labor for little or no compensation. Women comprise the majority of the low-wage or unpaid workforce; as care workers, adjunct faculty, and unpaid interns, they outnumber men. What unites all of this work, whether performed by GEDs or PhDs, is the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for doing it. Women are supposed to do work because they are natural nurturers and are eager to please; after all they’ve been doing uncompensated childcare, elder care, and housework since time immemorial.
From the hospital to the high school, from the newsroom to the film production set, it is love that conceals the worker’s oppression. Like the middle-class housewives of the ’60s and ’70s, the unpaid and underpaid workers in those “lovable professions” of the twenty-first century quietly mask their own exploitation with pleasant, obliging smiles. The intern in particular feels the burden of her smile—her career depends on its sincerity and permanence. Happy and submissive, the intern reinforces the assumption that doing what you love is a priceless experience that is only tainted by the pressures of the wage-relation.
Another friend of mine, Amy, worked in a creative field as an unpaid intern for several months last year. Over drinks to celebrate her recently acquired full-time job, she told me about a time during her internship when her work failed to meet the expectations of her manager. When scolded for her mistake, Amy explained that she was still in training, that she was still becoming familiar with the requirements of her work. Her manager then asked: “Do you even want to be here? Is this even what you love to do?” Amy then made an obligatory apology, confirmed that she did love her job, and promised to be more careful next time.
The internship, like the DWYL mantra, teaches workers how to present, or more often, conceal themselves in order to best serve their workplace of choice. The promise of the intern’s eventual employment only serves to sanction the underpaid or unpaid labour that has allowed her to succeed. By temporarily accepting unpaid internships as an expression of our gratitude for future rewards, we are actively perpetuating a cycle of exploitation and sustaining patriarchal social relations.
WAGES AGAINST HOUSEWORK
In many struggles for proper monetary compensation and against poor working conditions, the most effective demonstration of the value of labour has been achieved by the refusal to go on working. During my internship, I would sometimes find myself on a Friday afternoon, rushing to complete a task before the weekend security alarm system was set. In these moments, I sometimes wondered what would happen if I left my work incomplete. What if I quit at the moment when I was most needed? Surely no one could deny the benefit of my labour then. I am certain many interns have shared this thought. But interns also know that employers have access to a saturated labour market and, at a moment’s notice, can replace a disillusioned intern with any of the other happy faces waiting in line. It seems that if we interns want to demand fair working conditions, we will not be successful if we do so individually.
In contrast to the liberal feminism of the work-for-equality movement, radical feminist movements sought to develop other strategies against patriarchal social relations that focused on the unwaged labour of the household. The challenge was not how to get out of the home, but how to politicize the work of the housewife. Formed in the ’70s by the International Feminist Collective in Italy, Wages for Housework emerged as a politically charged campaign toward the refusal of unpaid domestic labour.
Wages for Housework began with the assumption that, as founding members Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa wrote in 1972, “all women are housewives and even those who work outside the home continue to be housewives.” James and Dalla Costa set out to expose women’s unwaged reproductive work—the housewife’s role as the primary nurturer of the worker and his children—as essential to, rather than outside of, the survival of the waged workforce. Any distinction between the value of reproductive (women’s work) and productive labour (men’s work), according to the International Feminist Collective, is a long-standing fiction that has served to support the illusion of a fair economic system under capitalism.
In 1975, Silvia Federici further clarified the motivations behind Wages for Housework in her elucidating pamphlet, “Wages Against Housework,” proclaiming that: “to say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible.” Federici’s pamphlet emphasizes that by refusing to do domestic and reproductive work without a wage, women would expose the value of their labour; this demand, she argues, would force men to acknowledge women’s cooking, smiling, and fucking “as work—our love as work.”
In her call for action, Federici notes that Wages for Housework is not a work-for-equality movement, led by “the ‘career’ woman, the woman who escapes her oppression not through the power of unity and struggle, but through the power of the master, the power to oppress—usually other women.” In contrast, this radical movement sets out to take up the work of consciousness-raising and the mobilization of collective action, not just among housewives, or women for that matter, but as part of a larger class struggle against capitalist exploitation.
Although the housewives in this struggle never achieved wages for domestic and reproductive work, the Wages for Housework campaign, in its exposure of the value of unpaid reproductive labour to capitalist accumulation, still offers a useful political strategy. We, as future or former interns, ought to also look for ways to make visible the value-producing aspects of our underpaid labour. To do so, we will need to demonstrate how our work is in fact concretely contributing to our workplace. We must ask for wages as part of a struggle against the exploitation of our labour, which we know will persist well after our internship is complete.
According to Andrew Langille, a Toronto lawyer specializing in youth and workplace law, there are currently between 100, 000 and 300, 000 internship positions across Canada. Many writers and organizers have claimed that over two thirds of these positions are held by women. The trouble with any statistic about internships, however, is the fact that these positions often go unregulated. The intern is external to basic working standards; whether the concern is uncompensated overtime or sexual harassment, the intern has few places to look for real support. Despite the estimated masses, it is difficult to imagine interns demanding regular hours in their vulnerable legal position, let alone fair wages. To quote Schwartz again: “If workers do not see themselves as workers, they cannot ask for workers’ rights.”
Rethinking the intern as worker creates an opportunity to demand wages, but it might also help to set in motion a radical shift in a deeply ingrained system of social relations. What makes this all so difficult, of course, is the simple fact that internships exist in order to allow young people to make a good impression in their chosen field, absorb as much information as possible, and eventually land a full-time job. The intern is already on the competitive path toward her individual employment. She hardly has time to engage in social activism—when we work for free, it’s necessary for many of us to hold a part-time job, while looking simultaneously for future full-time work. Abolishing an abusive training system, then, is not typically at the top of the unpaid intern’s list.
The consequences of demanding wages for internships are also unclear. If the unpaid intern informs her employer that her work should be paid, the employer might come to see the intern, who agreed to work for free in the first place, as entitled and untrustworthy. The intern thus risks losing her reference and reputation—perhaps her most valuable assets. If regulatory authorities decide to take action, an inspection may determine that the intern’s labour is in fact benefitting the employer and should be paid. The employer might find it financially necessary to cancel the internship program rather than pay interns for the rest of their contract, prematurely breaking the intern-employer agreement, which promises valuable training and networking in exchange for unpaid work. Positioned within the wage-relation but outside the wage, all interns have to ask: is it the intern’s individual duty to resist performing unfairly compensated labour?
Federici argued that Wages for Housework was not one of many revolutionary campaigns, but “the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint and ultimately for the entire working class.” By refusing to do housework without a wage, radical feminist collectives demonstrated the value of their labour, thereby establishing the link between women’s reproductive and men’s productive work. By doing so, these women managed to expose the factory worker’s exploitation as sustained by their own.
Similarly, employees and interns ought to challenge the illusory distinction between their roles in the workforce, since the intern’s labour may actually sustain the exploitation of the waged worker. Finding ways to reposition the intern as a worker could help to pave the way for better working conditions for freelance, contract, overworked, and underpaid workers. As workplaces continue to demand more and more commitment, passion, and time from increasingly precarious employees, demanding better conditions for undervalued work becomes integral to the larger struggle against an exploitive system of social relations under capitalism.
It’s important to remember that demanding wages for internships is not some far-fetched dream. In Ontario, it is clear that unpaid internships could be coming to an end. If you are doing uncompensated work that adds value to your organization or company, then your internship might also be illegal. The Canadian Intern Association provides useful resources on how interns can legally claim back their pay.
As an intern, I must admit that I did not make any demands, radical or otherwise, of my employer. The temporariness of my position, the fear of being exiled from my field, the uncertainty of any effects of my demands, along with the satisfaction of doing work that I enjoy—all contributed to the reason why I kept my head down at my desk every day. Despite knowing that my willingness to work for free closed doors to those who couldn’t afford to do so, and that my unpaid work financially benefitted The Walrus in certain ways, I arrived at work each day eager to please. Perhaps I will get a job soon, as others have done before me. Or maybe I won’t. Either way, other internships will continue across corporate and non-profit sectors in Canada, and interns like myself will continue to do unpaid and underpaid work for the financial and social benefit of others.
Before we can demand fair wages, it seems that we must find ways to support each other, rather than out-do each other. If an intern demands a wage, we shouldn’t see her as entitled or naive. We ought to recognize that, as the workforce becomes more feminized, more individualized, and more alienating, the experience of the intern, like the experience of the housewife, affects every worker. With this in mind, we ought to rethink our precious networking opportunities as a pursuit of allies, as opposed to a competition for employment.
Only when we acknowledge ourselves as interns, as housewives, and as workers, can we collectively determine ways to make manifest the value of our work, and to reestablish the link between our unwaged and waged labour. It is time, once again, to take up the work of imagining alternatives to the social relationships that alienate and divide us. ♦
Since this article was written, a number of magazines and book publishers have decided to compensate their interns for their labour (others have chosen to cancel their programs entirely). It is worth noting that The Walrus will continue to offer a paid training program for interns, now called fellows. By making efforts to secure funding to pay and train young people entering the field, this restructuring will undoubtedly widen the pool of candidates able to apply for these positions. This marks a small but significant step toward regulating unpaid internships in Ontario.
“Office Wives” is from our spring 2014 issue, Women’s Work