Alberta family blames ‘internship culture’ for death of Andy Ferguson

Andy Ferguson's girlfriend Caelie Crowley (CBC)The abuse of Canadian internships is an issue that should return to the public spotlight when the House of Commons returns to business later this month, as many debate and question the merits of work-for-experience programs.

One Alberta family believes Canada’s internship culture was directly responsible for the death of their loved one – Andy Ferguson, a 22-year-old broadcasting student who died in a car accident while driving home from working at an Edmonton radio station.

Matt Ferguson told CBC News that his brother's fatal crash, in November 2011, came as he was driving home from working a double shift. He had worked a morning shift followed by an all-nighter at an Astral Media radio station in the Edmonton area, where he was doing a school internship.

Ferguson was working shifts for free, which counted toward his degree at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, and was putting in extra work as a paid intern on the side.

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The family says Ferguson was too tired to drive home after working 16 hours over the course of the day. They say texts messages and personal accounts of his experience suggest the station was abusing his situation, having him work shifts and hours that did not provide valuable experience. His girlfriend said one of his supervisors frequently referred to him as his "bitch."

An investigation found that the radio station had not violated any labour laws, but there is a growing sentiment in Canada that internship programs are ripe for abuse.

Between 100,000 and 300,000 young Canadians work in free internships, often fresh out of school and looking to catch on in the job market.

Their situation makes it tough to say no, to demand fair treatment. They push themselves to the limit and beyond hoping to impress the right person and at least receive a positive recommendation.

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Companies that overwork and underpay participants in various internship programs were a central focus before Parliament broke for the summer, and was later prorogued further, with the NDP pressing for stronger rules to protect those who may be taken advantage of in the workplace. Edmonton-St. Albert Independent MP Brent Rathgerber says he will also push for fair treatment for young interns.

NDP MP Andrew Cash led the charge for fair treatment before the government went on summer vacation, suggesting the federal government should step in and ensure fair treatment.

“You tack on, on average, $28,000 of student debt and then you are asking young people to work in serial unpaid positions with the dangled hope of a job at the end of it. What recourse does a young person have?” Cash told Yahoo Canada News.

That sense of helplessness oozes from the Ferguson family’s account of Andy’s death. He was pushing himself to impress, was afraid refusing a task would result in a bad review, and possibly a failing grade.

Reports from the time of his death suggest Ferguson was the type of person who would go the extra mile to make someone happy. Did a lack of internship regulations allow him to go too far?

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