Perhaps the worst offender in the unpaid internship scam is journalism. This industry is addicted to exploiting young people through unpaid internships and rarely does any critical commentary appear on this practice. In the past year a number of great articles about this practice have appeared: Bethany Horne wrote a heartfelt critique about unpaid internships in the media, the Ryerson Review of Journalism analyzed how much interns are worth, Maclean's covered the growing backlash against unpaid internships and The Star's Public Editor wrote a great article about the practice.
The rise of internships is part of a wider trend in the labour market over the last thirty years that has shifted the cost of training new employees from the employers onto taxpayers, families and students. This parallels the trend of downloading of the cost of maintaining the post-secondary education sector onto students and their families amid an era of unprecedented credentialism where possessing a Bachelors degree most likely won't land you a interview. Both of these developments are examples of the strategic abandonment of youth people by governments vis-a-vis the public policy adopted during the era of neoliberalism.
Guy Standing, in his new book, The Precariat, makes a poignant observation, "Internships are a threat to youth...Even if a payment is made, the interns are doing cheap dead-end labour, exerting downward pressure on the wages and opportunities of others who might otherwise be employed. An internship may give positional advantage to a few young people, but it is more like buying a lottery ticket, in this case involving a private subsidy, usually paid by the intern's family."
What's occurring is that the price of entry into a career in journalism is shooting up as debt-ridden students are required to engage in vast amount of unpaid work to even reach the stage where their competitive for paid positions. This severely limits the number of diverse perspectives in the profession by making it more difficult for students from historically marginalized communities to gain a foothold.
The widespread use of unpaid interns in the media mirrors the rise of precarious employment in wider society. Internships can be placed on the spectrum of precarious employment, with little chance of a permanent job, benefits, training or even pay. This precarity inserts a tremendous amount of stress into the lives of young people entering the workforce and students finishing their education. Also, there's a link between the depressed labour market and the exponential increase in the mental health issues facing Canadian youth.
What irks me about this particular situation with the media industry is the use of unpaid internships by organizations that either espouse progressive politics or cater to youth demographics - as unpaid internships inherently cast young workers as a disposable commodity who just don't matter. Be it This Magazine, Rabble.ca, BlogTO, Spacing or The Grid, these are organizations that have no excuse for violating the provisions governing the use of trainees under sub-section 1(2) of the Employment Standards Act, 2000.
Beyond the breaking of the law and lacking the ability to critically assess their own human resources practices, this situation also highlights the general inability of the Canadian media, particularly progressive voices, to provide coverage, commentary and critical analysis about the vast changes that are occurring within labour markets. Citizens need to understand what's occurring, yet that's not happening. Consider this: if a extraterrestrial arrived in Canada and started digesting our media, they would be left with the impression that unionized employees are responsible for every social ill imaginable. That's bizarre, but so is the practice of not paying young employees, perhaps it's time that CEOs of media conglomerates start working free for four month stints - that would make a good headline.