Internships are a hot topic of discussion on campuses this fall given the release of Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation and interest from the media over the summer (see: here, here and here).
One area that isn’t getting a lot of discussion, however, is the cozy relationship between employers and post-secondary institutions that has entrenched and normalized unpaid internships as part of the school-to-labour market transition. The Internsheep Blog recently ran two articles, one analyzing the internship postings on York University’s Career Centre website, and another presenting the response from the Centre after being questioned about the legality of certain position.
This post will explore a number of the dimensions that make unpaid internships problematic, and address the linkages between employers and the post-secondary education system.
York University’s Career Centre website has posted over one hundred unpaid internships available for students. These unpaid internships are offered by organizations like Bell Mobility, Trade Secrets, RBC Dominion Securities and the American Consulate General in Toronto. These internships may be illegal, as many appear to breach the six-fold test (reviewed by Professor Doorey in this post) enumerated in subsection 1(2) of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“the ESA”).
A review of the responsibilities of interns reveals that employers are clearly deriving benefit from the work of interns through job duties such as: creating financial plans for clients, monitoring print and broadcast media, designing applications for Blackberries, and even data entry for customer contests. One of the key factors defining a lawful unpaid intern is that the training being provided is for the benefit of the intern, and not the person or company doing the training. The trainer must derive “little if any benefit” from the activities of the worker.
The exclusion set out in subsection 3(5) of the ESA for post-secondary students in an approved university program does not apply here, since these internships do not form part of any college or university program. This set of facts give rise to the concern that this is a possible example of employers mischaracterizing employees as interns to avoid their obligations under the ESA in areas like minimum wage and occupational health. It’s also noteworthy to state that a number of postings from Absolute Internship appear on the York University website. These positions require students to pay over $6,999.00 for the opportunity to complete an international internship.
Unpaid internships present an emerging form of inequity in the labour market, as the social location of certain students prevents them from undertaking unpaid work. Family status, disability, socio-economic class, and age are all considerations that might preclude students from being able to derive the tangible benefits these internships present in the form of networking, on-the-job experience and hard transferable skills. This represents an inequality of opportunity and a barrier to social mobility since, generally, only students from wealthy families have the ability to engage in unpaid work, or possess the ability to pay for an unpaid internship. In an increasingly competitive economy, these unpaid internships present a very real path into the high-end labour market which is focused on knowledge-sector jobs, rather than the growing labour market in low-wage, low-potential jobs in the service sector.
Perhaps what is most troubling about these unpaid internships is York University’s tacit endorsement of possibly illegal and ethically questionable forms of employment. There is a deep complicity here in the exploitative arrangements that involve the university’s own students, and it appears that little thought or scrutiny has gone into ascertaining whether these sorts of job postings ought to appear on the Career Centre’s website. Ignoring the legality and taking an uncritical stance towards precarious work in the midst of a deteriorating youth labour market is not gaining the academy any credibility as a societal institution amid the crocodile tears spilled by administrators over ongoing concerns regarding student debt, affordability and constant tuition increases. As vitally important institutions in society, universities must come to the realization that they have a critical role to play in advocating for and ensuring the success of young people as they begin careers.
Whether they like it or not, universities are increasingly being called upon to prepare students for entry into the labour market; this is a role that universities have not traditionally played and one that institutionally they are not prepared to handle in any meaningful way. Perhaps unpaid internships represent a policy stopgap of sorts as universities struggle to find ways to assist students entering the new economy, especially with governments unwilling to implement ameliorative labour market interventions that could ease the school-to-work transition for youth amid calls for austerity measures rooted in the ideology of neoliberalism. This problematic situation represents a failure of key institutions in society to remedy the very real challenges facing the current generation entering the workforce, including: the disappearance of entry level positions, the rise of precarious forms of employment deviating from the standard employment relationship, and creeping credentialism. What is sorely needed is the creation of a sustained youth labour market strategy that takes a holistic and nuanced approach to creating sustainable jobs for young people in Canada. Universities clearly have a role to play in such strategies, and a good start would be taking a principled stance against the exploitation of their own students.(Note: this article was originally appeared as a guest blog post on David Doorey's Workplace Law Blog.)