Opinion: Why unpaid internships will always be unethical
by Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Publishing Editor
With the summer season in full force, many post-secondary students are already in the middle of their summer internships. Ideally, they get to be exposed to the ins and outs of their future industry, they’re under the guidance of a knowledgeable mentor and they’re being paid deservingly for their work.
But as you may ask some of the many post-secondary students around the city, many of them will tell you that they work for free. It may seem unthinkable that unpaid internships still exist. But sadly, they still do and they’re hurting the job market.
The Canada Labour Code defines an intern as “a person whose primary purpose for being in the workplace is to gain knowledge or experience.” Interns can get paid at least a minimum wage in federally regulated workplaces. But other employers found a way to circumvent this, most of them are not required to pay their interns if that job opportunity is a requirement of an educational program from an academic institution, and that includes Alberta universities and colleges.
Unrealistic Entry-Level Requirements
More than ever, internship experience is seen as very valuable by many employers. This can be seen by the amount of entry-level job postings requiring several years of experience right out the gate. An analysis of 3.8 million jobs on LinkedIn since December 2017 found that almost 40% of the job postings ask for at least three years of relevant work experience. The study found software and IT related jobs to have the most job postings with that requirement, followed by manufacturing and design related jobs.
With this unrealistic requirement, many students are forced to take any kind of experience, including unpaid internships, just so they could have a competitive edge when breaking into their chosen industry.
This leaves students who cannot afford an unpaid or underpaid internship for four months vulnerable and in the dark. With financial barriers such as rent, gas, everyday expenses, students are forced to take out loans or be forced to not graduate if the internship is a requirement. Those who are in more favourable financial conditions have the ability to partake in two or three internships without the worry of it being unpaid.
Immigrants and the Struggle for Canadian Experience
One of the many struggles experienced by immigrants, both students and graduates, is facing employers who require a lot of Canadian experience and discredit their foreign experiences, no matter how competent it is. This closes so many doors for skilled immigrants as they are then forced to take any kind of job, including unpaid internships to beef up their Canadian resume.
This type of barrier hits harder for immigrant and refugee women. In an interview with CBC News, the program coordinator of Pacific Resources Immigrants Society (PIRS) Sanzida Habib says it often takes five years or more for highly-skilled immigrant and refugee women to resume the profession they had before coming to Canada. PIRS is an organization focused on addressing the needs and challenges of migrant women and children across Vancouver.
Many of these women are forced to engage in many hours of volunteering and unpaid jobs or internships to gain the so-called Canadian experience.
“That’s not fair,” Habib said. “You have to volunteer when you need money to settle down in a new place that you have just come to and you don’t have anyone to support you.”
What this phenomenon is slowly creating is a workforce that is built on privilege and wealth and not on competency and talent. Companies lose the chance on skilled students and immigrants who may offer them unique abilities because of this discriminatory financial barrier.
Employee retention is also affected when companies only have limited hiring options because of these barriers. With a more diverse and larger pool of applicants, companies have better chances of finding the right fit for their company and those who can stay longer.
Younger students and immigrants also almost always offer new and fresh ideas to the company which is especially important in the age of social media and technology.
But even with all these benefits aside, unpaid labour should never even exist in a world where every day it’s getting more and more ridiculously expensive to have food on your table and a roof over your head. No matter how much companies pose being able to work for them as such a “privilege and honour”, there is only so much a person can sacrifice. Reasonable payment, no matter the job, must be a right.