A quick primer on unpaid internships:
- Unpaid internships in Ontario are illegal, unless they’re sponsored through a post-secondary institution for credit.
- Unpaid internships are not a guarantee of future employment, or greater earning potential.
- Unpaid internships are a gendered issue, as women make up the vast majority of their ranks.
- The highest profile example of unpaid internships right now is the Bell Canada case (Note – link is to an autoplay video about the case).
This is an issue I have been concerned about for some time now. It became clear to me early on in political science (and the social sciences more broadly), it’s necessary to complete an internship to get ahead. I was comfortably and happily employed in my field in Ottawa, but all around me classmates were travelling to far-off locations to intern for some international organization. Not to be outdone, I left my job at the time to intern at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. It was an amazing experience, about which I reminisce constantly.
I don’t know if working at the Embassy gave me an edge in my law, grad school, and employment since, but it’s definitely a point of conversation in all my interviews. It’s glamorous!
I could never have interned in DC without first having worked a well-paying full-time job, which allowed me to save. At $1,000 a month for a room in a stranger’s house, DC was not cheap. Tack on travel, food, clothes, and modest entertainment (thank god their museums are free!), and it adds up.
When organizations like the United Nations offer internships to those enrolled in or going into graduate studies, but bar interns from applying for UN employment until six months after their internship has ended, you have to wonder – who are these smart, savvy people with money saved up to move to New York, Geneva, or Nairobi?
For law students, internships are a way of boosting your resume as you prepare to secure a seemingly-illusive summering position, not to mention articles. Fortunately for law students, universities offer credits for such undertakings. (I just received approval for my own student-proposed law internship).
Internships are a great opportunity for hands-on experience. However, more and more they are becoming all there is to do while employment opportunities dwindle, especially for young people, in some of the aforementioned fields. With no guarantee of pay-off for this alleged “paying of dues”, I have to ask: why are we putting up with this?
The internship model hurts those who are already marginalized when it comes to entry into highly-coveted professions like law. For those who can’t get the few jobs on offer because of barriers caused by disability, family commitments, age, race, or language, internships are sold as an opportunity to gain experience. The unfortunate reality is that internships are not a competitive edge, and actually set those already behind the pack further behind, financially speaking.
Some argue that internships allow small organizations to hire where they otherwise couldn’t raise the funds. But working for nothing for a cause you support has another name: volunteering. If you’re obligated to work for someone without being remunerated, that’s exploitation. Meanwhile, those at the top are staying put, and the number of entry-level positions is stagnating.
It’s a tough position to be in: cash-strapped, in debt, in need of references, in need of law-related credentials. Who are we as students to stand up to employers and say enough is enough?
The truth is we must say something. Through organizations like the Canadian Intern Association, through our student unions, through our elected officials, the campaign to end unpaid internships needs to get under way.