Unethical Unpaid Internships

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Unethical Unpaid Internships

Should interns be working for free?


Unpaid internships have been at the centre of recent debate, prompting many to question whether it is ethical to hire interns and not financially compensate them for their contributions to companies. Derivative of Photo by Sean Macentee.

It seems like there’s a new article published nearly every week on the topic of millennials and the chaotic state of their lives. The media would have us believe that they’re all over-educated, technologically addicted, under-employed, and chronically unable to contend with the harsh realities of the post-recession working world.

Hyperbolic generalizations aside, it’s been well publicized that for university students and recent grads entering the workforce, opportunities are limited. It’s a catch-22: In order to land a job, you’re required to have work experience on your resume, but you need a job to attain relevant work experience in the first place.

Internships seem to be the antidote to this problem, providing ambitious young adults real-life experience in a competitive job market. However, unpaid internships have come under scrutiny recently, with critics arguing that they exploit and devalue the labour of interns. In an economic climate where recent grads often struggle to find employment, are unpaid internships ethically sound?

Those in favour of unpaid internships argue that they allow inexperienced students and young adults access to valuable opportunities within fields that they may otherwise struggle to break into (for example, in fields such as journalism and media). They provide experience and bridge the gap between education and the workforce. Unpaid internships are competitive, and since interns are not working towards a financial incentive (i.e. a pay-cheque), employers can gauge the intern’s work ethic and judge their potential to succeed in a paid position in the future. In addition to acquiring real-life skills and experience, interns make contacts within their field, which could lead to future opportunities for paid work after the internship period ends.

In theory, the experience interns acquire is invaluable. However, working as an unpaid intern places a great deal of financial strain on young adults. Basic living expenses such as rent, utilities, groceries, transportation costs and student loans persist, placing strain on an already vulnerable demographic. Unpaid internships unfairly favour those privileged enough to have the financial resources to support them. The bottom line is that many people are not lucky enough to be able to afford working for free. Experience doesn’t pay the bills.

Unpaid internships act as a systemic barrier to candidates who may have the qualifications, education and ambition to succeed, but lack the financial autonomy to commit to a work arrangement in which their labour is unpaid.

Another problem is that unpaid interns occupy a precarious position within the workforce when it comes to labour laws. According to the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, unpaid internships are largely unregulated in Canada. That’s because “interns” don’t actually occupy a strictly defined category. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, “the fact that you are called an ‘intern’ does not determine whether or not you are entitled to the protections of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA), including the minimum wage.”

According to an article published in the Toronto Star, titled “Unpaid interns: No one is keeping track,” the category of “intern” does not technically exist and no federal or provincial agency tracks interns. It’s been estimated that there could be around 300,000 unpaid interns in Ontario – approximately 100,000 of which are not on the books.

While unpaid internships provide some individuals the chance to get their foot in the door by providing valuable opportunities to network and gain important skills, they also unfairly exclude others from job opportunities they may be capable of fulfilling, but financially incapable of pursuing. Unpaid internships are not ethically justifiable; they cater to an elite group, place undue stress and financial strain on participants, and due to a lack of regulation, could potentially exploit the work of interns. Until the definition of intern is defined according to stricter regulations, and interns are financially compensated for their contributions to companies, unpaid internship programs will continue to exploit vulnerable workers in an already damaged economy. There’s no such thing as a free lunch; working for free comes at a cost – and it’s absurd to expect interns to foot the bill.