Hard At Work: How do students live on unpaid internships?

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Hard At Work: How do students live on unpaid internships?

Anne is making tough choices now that it's time to start the mandatory internship component of her post-graduate diploma at Western University. Will she graduate or pay her rent?

As part of our Hard at Work series, we're looking at how employees in Ontario could benefit from changes being considered to the Employment Standards Act. CBC Toronto first told you in February about the changes that could overhaul workplace rules in Ontario. Since then, hundreds of people have reached out with their workplace horror stories.

The 27-year-old, who did not want to be identified because she fears jeopardizing future job opportunities, is one of thousands of Ontario students required to complete an unpaid internship before finishing her studies this year.

For Anne, the four-month long internship program requires her to be in the workplace for approximately 40 hours a week. She also pays $1,200 in tuition for the opportunity.  

"The elephant in the room is working full-time for no pay," said Anne, stressing that she's already juggling a part-time job as a server in a restaurant working some evenings and weekends. 

Learning experience or free labour? 

Internships are a growing part of post-secondary programming. But students like Anne report they are being assigned to tasks that seem like a job rather than a learning opportunity, and that raises a question: should they be paid or not?

"When I was going through the interview process, I was told I would be doing administrative work and that seems like work that should be paid because it's helping the company," she said.  

As part of the Changing Workplaces Review, the Ontario government is considering reworking the rules around unpaid internships. One proposal suggests covering interns under the Employment Standards Act and compensating them for labour that benefited an organization.

The proposal came on the heels of "enforcement blitzes" where provincial inspectors discovered: 

- 13 out of 31 Ontario workplaces in 2014 should have compensated interns.

- 18 out of 77 Ontario workplaces in 2015 should have compensated interns.

The province is now weighing how to proceed as it looks to modernize the labour act. It's even suggesting excluding the title of "intern" or "trainee" to avoid further abuses. 

3,000 unpaid internships at Western University

The issue is timely — the federal government promised in the latest budget to limit unpaid internships and eliminate those that aren't part of an educational program. Unpaid interns would also be subject to maximum hours of work, weekly days of rest and statutory holidays.

In post-secondary institutions, the number of unpaid spots continues to grow.

Western University, for example, has 3,049 unpaid internships across 10 faculties compared to 632 that are paid. 

Journalism schools across Canada send graduating students to the CBC every year to complete six-week unpaid internships. Approximately 50 interns will work with various local Toronto shows, with 30 others learning the ropes in network radio.  

Former Toronto-area MP Andrew Cash believes colleges and universities rely too heavily on unpaid workplace stints and should be advocating on behalf of their students for honorariums for longer-term internships. 

"Far too many students are having to choose between paying the rent or doing the practicum," he said. "There is a debate around young people needing hands-on experience but that used to be called a part-time job."

As an MP, Cash fought to amend the federal labour code to protect unpaid interns in 2014 after the death of Andy Ferguson, 22, who died after his shift as an unpaid intern at an Alberta radio station.

As part of the Urban Worker Project he now runs, Cash continues to hear of many students in precarious situations.

Anne may not graduate

Many students like Anne may never get to the internship phase and make a financial choice to pursue other avenues as opposed to completing the program.

"Some of my friends are taking out bank loans," she explains, noting that the Ontario Student Assistance Program did not cover the Western University program. "A lot of people are also moving back home with their parents."

Anne said the only way she could manage her finances with the internship would be to work as a server, at least 25 hours a week. Worried she would be exhausted and not make a good impression, she started applying for real jobs instead. 

"I just found a full-time job in my field and I'm really hoping the university will let me count my hours there toward the internship. I want to graduate but there's no guarantee at this point." 

Have you worked as an unpaid intern? How necessary is it to change the rules around unpaid internships? Send us an email and tell us your story.