Parties disagree on issues surrounding unpaid internships

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Cameron Raynor – The Dagligtale (University of Alberta, Augustana Campus)

 

With more than 40 per cent of students graduating with student debt, according to Statistics Canada, many students feel they can’t afford to take on internships and work for free.

“I wouldn’t take one because the cost of living is too high,” said Callum Wilson, a University of Alberta student. “Internships are a great place to learn but in today’s world they aren’t feasible.”

Groups like the Canadian Intern Association, a non-profit organization advocating to improve internship experiences, are working to ensure interns at all levels, including federal, are paid a fair wage for work.

Josh Mandryk, executive director of the Canadian Intern Association, said that unpaid interns are doing necessary work for companies and without them, employers would create actual paid jobs.

“I think this structure is harmful because it undercuts employers who pay their interns. It allows unpaid interns to replace paid interns and undercut each other,” said Mandryk

He pointed to a Ministry of Labour crackdown on unpaid internships in Ontario in 2014, that forced several magazines, including the Walrus, to lay off their unpaid interns.

“When the government enforced the law those positions became paid positions,” he said.

Stephanie Gruhlke, a University of Alberta student, saw this first-hand: “I spent the summer working an unpaid internship at an organization that would not function to its full capacity without unpaid interns.”

She said she gained a lot of experience from her internship, however, she acknowledged that many students are unable to take on unpaid internships because they need to work to pay for their tuition and living expenses.

The valuable experience students can gain from an internship is something Conservative MP Kevin Sorensen, who is currently running for re-election in the Battle River-Crowfoot riding in Alberta, said the Conservative Party is concerned about and the reason it doesn’t want to increase regulation of internships.

“I think with the internship issue, the question becomes ‘how do we best prepare the intern for the workplace and for a job somewhere down the road?’” he said, pointing to contacts students make on internships, who may hire them later on.

He’s also concerned about unintended consequences coming from insisting all interns be paid. He said that in the 2014 federal budget the Conservative Party set funding aside for 3,000 interns in “high skillset areas.” He said the party found that when employers had to pay to employ students, they were less likely to do so. “But once they’ve had this young person come in, they want them to stay in their company.”

The other major political parties disagree on the best course of action to address the issues facing interns.

The NDP told the Canadian Intern Association the party is committed to “cracking down on the use of unpaid internships.” The NDP further said they would extend full health and safety protections to interns under the Canadian Labour Code—something the Conservatives also promised to do in their 2015 budget proposal.

The Liberal Party told the advocacy group they would establish “clear standards around internships” to protect them from exploitation, but didn’t directly address whether they would require them to be paid.

The Green Party of Canada said they would amend the Canadian Labour Code to ensure federally regulated employers pay their interns. Additionally, the Green Party said they would work through the Council of Canadian Governments to “ensure all working Canadians are fairly compensated.”

Mandryk is also concerned about unpaid internships run through colleges and universities, like Gruhlke’s, which she said was part of a co-curricular program option.

“Some are excellent programs, but there are many unpaid positions where there isn’t proper oversight,” he said. “Essentially what we have are youth that are working for free and paying tuition to do it. I don’t think that’s very helpful for the youth job market.”

One of the reasons employers turn to unpaid interns is because in today’s workplace there is less incentive for employers to invest in training employees.

“The need to get quick return on employee investments and HR investment is central to how businesses function,” said Kristen Cumming, a professional consultant, speaker and trainer focused on career development, employability, and human resources.

“Where it breaks down irrefutably is when students can’t find internships that feel meaningful to them and use their skills well,” she said. “And that’s really tough because they may feel they have no other options.”