Unpaid restaurant busboy intern: valuable educational experience or just free labour?

A Vancouver Fairmont hotel wants students to bus tables for free

I rolled my eyes when I read that Vancouver's posh Fairmount Waterfront Hotel had advertised for restaurant busboys to work as unpaid interns.

"Exceptional service and cuisine are hallmarks of The Fairmont Waterfront dining experience," read the ad, posted briefly on the hotel web site's careers section, according to CBC News.

"As a Busperson, you will take pride in the integral role you play in supporting your Food and Beverage Colleagues and 'setting the stage' for a truly memorable meal."

The Twitter reaction was predictable.

The head of Vancouver Community College's culinary arts department endorsed the idea of unpaid intern "buspersons" as a way for someone to see if they're cut out for the food-service industry.

"Even dishwashing, it's education," John-Carlo Felicella told CBC News. "It's a lower-end job, but from there it stems to many other things."

Yeah, right.

Having spent a long-ago high-school summer busing tables at a busy restaurant for minimum wage, I can testify the job does have its educational aspects.

[ Related: Unpaid intern replaces Ont. MPP’s staff job, says ex-worker ]

I learned how to scrub the inside of our giant coffee urns while teetering on a chair, how to hump sacks of potatoes from the store room, how to keep from throwing up clearing tables where customers had stubbed their cigarettes into the remains of their meal.

Mostly I learned to choke down my resentment at a couple snarky waitresses whose tables I cleared and reset, hoping in vain they might share their tips.

I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that job for free. For the experience.

We don't know if the Fairmont is one of those businesses that's pushing the envelope when it comes to unpaid interns, looking for a little free labour in the guise of educational experience. The company sent CBC News a bland emailed statement saying "we actively support local schools and work in partnership with them to provide opportunity and access to practical workplace experience."

But clearly there's rising concern that economically squeezed businesses are finding ways to exploit students hungary for work experience to help them compete for future paid jobs.

The family of a young Alberta man studying broadcasting is blaming overwork as an unpaid intern at an Edmonton radio station for his death 2011. He was driving home from a double shift when he was killed in a car crash. Family and friends say he was being exploited without gaining any additional work experience.

[ Related: Alberta family blames ‘internship culture’ for death of Andy Ferguson ]

Most provinces have sections of their labour codes outlining the limits to unpaid internships. British Columbia, for example, bars interns from doing work that would normally be performed by paid staff.

Ontario has similar protections under its Employment Standards Act, but student groups from several universities are saying it's time to ban unpaid internships altogether.

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, representing 140,000 students, released a position saying some employers were using unpaid internships to "to exploit the historically high supply of post-secondary graduates," Metro News reported. The alliance estimated there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 unpaid internships across Canada.

What are post-secondary institutions doing about the problem?

CBC News said Vancouver Community College requires restaurants taking its culinary arts students as interns to sign a contract promising they would not be taking jobs from paid employees. They're also limited to working five or 10 yours a week and can only observe and assist.

(I can see it now: "Here, James, hold this tray of dirty dinner plates while I clear the wine glasses from the table. See how I hold the glasses so they don't fall?")

Many students are required to do internships, whether paid or unpaid, as part of their course credit. I did two very useful one-week practicums while studying journalism at Carleton University. But the burden for today's students seems more onerous.

An article posted on the University Affairs web site talked about one Ryerson University student who was nervous about a 420-hour internship needed for her studies. She'd already completed one nightmarish unpaid internship with a New York public relations firm that involved doing menial work such as tidying the washroom and cleaning up dead animal parts used as props in a fashion show.

The University Affairs article noted the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, representing university career centres and outside businesses, issued a statement in 2012 advising members against posting unpaid internships unless they met common labour-law standards and ensured educational value.

The association put out the statement after noticing a "significant jump" in unpaid intership postings and "in spaces that traditionally had only been paid," association executive director Paul Smith said.

[ Related: HootSuite under fire for using unpaid interns after barrage of online criticism ]

Rules vary at institutions across Canada. The University of Regina's journalism school uses paid internships, for example.

"We find we get good results from it," internship co-ordinator Mark Taylor told University Affairs. "We want students to be treated as employees."

But the trend to unpaid internships apparently has been growing for more than a decade, labour lawyer Andrew Langille, who also writes a blog on youth labour issues.

“I can see a place for short-term job shadowing as opportunities to gain a bit of experience as part of an academic program," he told University Affairs. "But a lot of these positions, they’re replacing employees."

If Langille is right, universities and other post-secondary institutions need to get more involved in monitoring the use of unpaid internships required for academic credit, and not just fall back on provincial labour standards.

“What we would like to see are more paid positions … being encouraged by universities and colleges,” said law student Claire Seaborn, founding president of the Canadian Intern Association. “And if they are unpaid, for universities and colleges to be regulating them and watching them a lot more closely.”