graphic of woman with briefcase on rodent wheel
Internships without pay can leave people without enough money to keep body and soul together (Illustration: Malte Mueller/Getty Images)

Topics: Ethical Living | Human Rights

Unpaid internships are spreading like wildfire, with few protections

Would-be employees are cycling through multiple volunteer internships before getting paying jobs and can't risk saying no to demands


Early on a silver winter morning before a daily story meeting at CBC Manitoba, I was alone in the women’s washroom, choking back sticky phlegm and salty tears below the humming fluorescent lights.

I reminded myself to breathe: Pull air deep into your lungs. Ignore your jackhammer heart. I’m gonna puke. Now exhale. Should I call someone? Slow, steady. I imagined my watermelon-pink face, puffed with panic. Stop it. You have to go back out there.

I tried to concentrate on anything else. I mentally recited my grocery list and the dollar amounts of each item. I remembered that I needed toilet paper at home. I was paid $500 monthly during this 2007 radio internship, and the stress of being unable to afford everything I needed was overwhelming.

I flushed a wad of mascara-stained tissue and quickly tucked a toilet paper roll into my purse before making my exit. My breathing slowed, and a quick rush of relief spread over me like a cool breeze.

Five years later, I’m 27 years old, four internships deep into my career, and (fingers crossed) two years away from earning a doctoral degree. In September, I filled out the first-of-its-kind Canadian Internship Survey co-ordinated by two graduate students in the University of Victoria’s public administration program.

I indicated, quite honestly, that all of my internships have been rewarding in different ways. While I was at CBC, for instance, the federal government announced its 2007 budget. I huddled amid a group of journalists perched in front of a television watching Finance Minister Jim Flaherty dole out numbers. He mentioned the Registered Disability Savings Plan. People with disabilities being considered in the national budget? This screamed story-worthy to me. As a journalist and disability studies nerd, I was in my element.

That day, my voice — my story — was broadcast across the country. It stood as an example of what internships are good for: experience, opportunity, professional development, portfolio gems and making your mark.

The problem, really, was going home at night. Unable to afford a bus pass, I walked everywhere — my view of Winnipeg was one of sparkling snow-capped sidewalks and a black winter sky glimpsed through frosted eyelashes.

I held myself to a strict grocery-shopping rule: no buying items of $5 or more. My kitchen stored bags of dried kidney beans, white rice and my mom’s delicious banana bread mailed from my home in Regina.

Realizing that I would have to find more creative ways to get food than, you know, paying for it, I walked into Westminster United’s fall supper on a Saturday evening in November. It was a fundraiser, but I didn’t contribute.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you before,” a woman twice my age said, sitting down next to me. “I’m considering joining the congregation,” I lied as I shovelled more yam and tomato aspic into my face. I crashed two more church dinners that semester. A guilty aftertaste beats an empty stomach.

Luckily, all of my internships have been paid. There are no official numbers on how many coffee-fetching interns are hotfooting around the country, but the Canadian Intern Association (CIA) estimates between 100,000 and 300,000, with unpaid internships on the rise.

Even that estimate is unverifiable, says Barbara Ciochon of the CIA, because it’s difficult to pinpoint what an internship is, let alone keep a tally. Internships manifest differently across Canada based on the grey areas of provincial employment standards.

British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act, for example, distinguishes between a paid “internship,” which is defined as on-the-job training to provide someone with practical experience, and an unpaid “practicum” performed by a student for school credit. B.C. interns are considered employees and therefore are always supposed to be paid.

Katie Marocchi, chair of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, says that even with these employment regulations, young people are still vulnerable to employers looking for loopholes. She points to a job posting by a swanky Vancouver hotel looking for a student to bus tables as part of an unpaid “internship.”

However, the advertisement specifically requested that the candidate apply with the support of a post-secondary institution, which made it appear more like a practicum. The candidate’s student status would presumably allow the company to withhold pay.

And according to Marocchi, the academic gains would be negligible. “We know unequivocally that being a bus person doesn’t enhance the graduate’s skills or give them any more competitive experience in the workforce,” she says. The ad disappeared shortly after being blasted widely on Twitter in August.

The debate about internships — whether the value of hands-on learning outweighs the cost of working for little or nothing — is spilling over into almost every industry. Some worry that if the controversy heats up enough, internships will be subject to employment laws and companies will stop offering valuable networking and skill-building experiences.

Other interns feel exploited. Some aren’t aware they’ve applied for unpaid positions until they step into the job interview. Others believe internships are replacing entry-level positions. In Barrie, Ont., a 22-year-old part-time constituency assistant for provincial politician Rod Jackson told the National Post she left her job in August a few days before the end of her contract, which she was informed would not be extended. A few weeks later, she found an advertisement for an unpaid position that matched her job description.

Two interns also recently filed complaints with the government against Bell Mobility, saying they worked long hours with no pay. In the United States, interns who worked for companies like Gawker, PBS and the movie Black Swan have slapped their former employers with lawsuits alleging similar claims.

Meanwhile, advocates are watching. The CIA has an online “wall of shame” to expose companies it finds exploitative. In April 2013, the CIA blew the whistle on HootSuite for what the association called “illegal” unpaid internships. Within days, HootSuite revamped its policies to offer paid internships and to repay past interns.

And although Ciochon says the practice of young people paying for internships hasn’t spread to Canada yet, some U.S. organizations like Charitybuzz are taking bids. A $5,250 donation to Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research will net you four weeks of unpaid observation at Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment bank. Any takers?

Last October, Toronto MP Andrew Cash introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons that would, if passed, aim to protect unpaid interns by requiring provincial labour ministers to fill in legislative gaps and to monitor any unlawful internships.

In provinces like Ontario, where I have (perhaps unwisely) chosen to settle, you don’t have to be a student to intern. Here, over-qualified, degree-holding adults who intern aren’t considered employees under the Employment Standards Act and therefore don’t have to be paid.

The Ministry of Labour has noted that many unpaid internships transgress the act, and health and safety laws don’t protect unpaid interns, meaning it’s difficult to refuse to do dangerous work.

On the first day of my 2011 fact-checking internship at Chatelaine magazine, I sat in a cubicle next to a bubbly 28-year-old already seven internships into finding permanent work. A journalist who speaks four languages and holds a master’s degree, Beatrice Fantoni has a resumé that glitters with pre- and post-degree experience from Journalists for Human Rights, the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the Nairobi-based Pambazuka News, among others.

Fantoni’s sunny smile and her 2012 Ontario Newspaper Award win for her Windsor Star writing (where she now works full time) convinced me that she would be the golden child in this story — the one who escaped the internship grind.

“Oh, it’s just soul destroying,” she says, blowing my assumptions away during a late-night phone conversation. She recalls a six-month unpaid internship at an NGO in Geneva.

“We wanted it so bad that we just threw money at it,” Fantoni says of the financial hit she and the other interns took while working for nothing. “People think they’ll do a couple of internships and get a job. Then you’re seven internships in and you’re no closer. You lose a tremendous amount of self-confidence and feel very jaded.”

We remember our Chatelaine days. We reorganized cupboards. We price-checked designer purses. We transcribed other people’s interviews and tidied their writing. We fetched lunches for editors. We wrote blurbs for the health section. We poked our heads above our cubicles like gophers when the kitchen staffers announced their recipes didn’t quite work, and we joyfully nibbled test-batch chocolate cookies.

At the time, Chatelaine was hiring a year-round rotation of interns to support its one-employee fact-checking department. We gained fact-checking skills that still serve us to this day. We weren’t exactly dogged newshounds with fedoras and ink-stained notepads, but we were paid $800 per month for three months, which is better than nothing.

That winter, I visited a food bank for the first time. There was a lineup of men in burly sweaters drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. The thick smell of starchy soup stuck to my clothes, but that didn’t matter. I had to buy new office wear for work — I’m not stylish enough to pull off shabby chic, so I tried to pass as business casual. I bought a Chatelaine-worthy blazer with my credit card after paying $640 for rent and $121 for a monthly transit pass. On Valentine’s Day, the editorial staff gifted us expensive manicures as a work perk, and I was laughed at when I delicately asked if I could cash out instead.

I didn’t realize Fantoni was desperately trolling online job ads and shooting applications in all directions. And she didn’t realize I was tromping into the food bank with ridiculously posh nails. Neither of us could focus on our work completely, although we wanted to. We both have awards, graduate degrees and experience at home and abroad.

We thought we were doing everything right. “You spend all that time in school, and they tell you you’re really bright,” Fantoni says. “It’s really depressing. I genuinely worried for a long time that I was only ever going to be an intern.”

Joel Derksen, 27, worked three internships before landing his current job as a communications designer at IDEO in Germany. His first “big kid job” was a summer internship at Saskatchewan’s SaskPower that paid about $13 per hour. Impressed with the company’s professionalism, Derksen worked so hard that his supervisors ran out of projects for him by the time his internship ended in autumn.

A few years later, Derksen took an unpaid internship in Toronto where he was billed out to clients at a regular designer’s rate — anywhere from $75 to $200 per hour. He agreed to the arrangement because he wanted experience in his field. “When everyone else was waiting tables, I was doing communication design,” he explains.

While unpaid internships once dominated the arts — fashion, graphic arts, journalism — the CIA now sees them spreading to virtually every industry from finance to hospitality.

There are exceptions, though. For example, Ciochon points to student nurses whose clinical work is a degree requirement. This work is generally unpaid, but new nurses don’t face nursing internships once they’re qualified.

Even so, practicums aren’t always easy. University of Saskatchewan researchers interviewed 26 student teachers who had completed 16-week practicums in rural schools. The results of the study, published in the Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, point to major work-experience disadvantages, including travel expenses and inadequate accommodations. The anonymous respondents made comments such as, “Living in a stranger’s basement may be a negative.” No kidding.

In other industries, taking on post-degree internships presumably shows that you care, that you are willing to sweat under the experts. Filling your portfolio with work stamped by the best companies in your field is supposed to catapult you into a living-wage job. It’s an insidious cycle in a culture whose myths tell us that if we do what we love, the money will follow.

The creative industries post jobs for people who want to be “rock stars” with a “can-do attitude” and “a willingness to take on anything.” And they mean anything. Internships are so poorly regulated that it’s difficult to decipher whether intern fatalities, for instance, relate to working conditions.

In November 2011, Andy Ferguson, a 22-year-old radio intern studying at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, was putting in double shifts at an Edmonton radio station when he died in an evening car crash. And last August, 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt was found dead in a shower after allegedly working 72 hours straight during his Bank of America internship in England.

“You don’t have the liberty to say no,” Derksen explains. “Everyone’s replaceable. The people that graduate this year are more relevant than I am. The way to stay in the game is to say yes to everything.”

One woman, at 29, did say no after leaving her budding retail career to become a professional writer. She has chosen not to reveal her name or the names of her employers. Discussing past work experiences in small industries where everyone talks can be risky.

In 2010, when this woman — let’s call her Megan — was taking writing courses at the University of Toronto, she landed back-to-back internships at a weekly news publication and at a high-profile magazine. Her portfolio thickened with publications. Then, after nine months of working for free in downtown Toronto, she was staring at $8,000 of debt that quickly snowballed when she could no longer pay her credit card interest.

“I was really gung-ho, so I figured that if I put the same sort of effort — my heart and soul — into my job search, I’d be able to find something that paid,” she says. She was offered a weekly fashion column. It was a nice fit, but it didn’t pay. Then Megan was offered more work — all for free. “I thought writing is what you love,” her contacts reasoned.

Megan wanted to go to a friend’s wedding in France and to add to her retirement savings plan. She can’t pinpoint the trigger moment, but her decision to return to retail hit her sharply and clearly one day on her way to yoga. It was like being snapped out of a daze.

“Maybe it would have worked if I had started at 20. But nearing 30, you’re wondering about changes in your life, and if you don’t have the financial flexibility to make changes, it can be very frustrating.”

Internships aren’t only off-putting to some job seekers. As he makes his way deeper into the design industry, Derksen has noticed workplaces where unpaid interns are considered desperate rather than devoted. He says that if he’s in a position to hire someday, he’ll be looking at the quality of art in someone’s portfolio rather than a list of internships.

I try to imagine myself in a hiring position. What will I think of a resumé littered with internships? Will I assume the candidate knows more about memorizing my lunch order than the work at hand? Will I suspect the applicant can’t land a job for some reason? And in what ways does this thought demean my own internship experiences?

Still, when I reported to the Canadian Internship Survey that my own internship experiences were positive overall, I was being honest. The researchers, Isabelle Couture and James Attfield, tell me that within a week of opening the online survey, they received 120 responses — more than half their sample goal. At that time, most respondents were women. Most were unpaid. And most were from Ontario. Their results, to be revealed in 2014, may offer the first hard data on the lives of Canadian interns and the industries that feed on them.

In 2012, I interned at The United Church Observer. The year-long position paid $36,000. “I know it’s not enough,” the magazine’s editor-publisher David Wilson said to me during an informal job interview.

In my mind, I envisioned a windfall, a stream of coins rushing from a slot machine. I mentally planned to shove about two-thirds of my monthly earnings toward my $20,000 student loan and kiss my debt goodbye. “Oh, it’s fine,” I muttered.

“What do you want to do in the future?” Wilson asked. I balked. I want to afford new running shoes, I thought of saying. But he meant something else. I want to find a career that pays. Robotics or dentistry looks promising.

“Hard to say . . .” I sucked in my breath.

I remembered a time when I would have chatted about journalistic drive, about that heart-thumping craving to write. But I’d lost my long-term ambitions to the financial worries of everyday life: the laundry isn’t going to pay for itself.

I also held in a secret: I’d never broken a contract before, but I was fully prepared to walk away from The Observer. I told Wilson he could count on me for a year; I told my parents I’d bail within a week if this thing began to feel like a typical internship. I was already enrolled in a PhD program that offered a devastating $21,000 annually (before tuition) for my research, and I could revoke my leave of absence if need be.

A week passed, and I phoned my dad. “They’re just so nice to me,” I told him. “Dad — ” I paused for dramatic effect, “they all learned my name. That’s never happened before.”

I decided to stick out the experiment: if I was to be paid like an employee, I would consider myself an employee, not an intern. Turns out, working hard on one thing — rather than a bunch of things, like after-hours freelancing, coupon collecting and sneaking in online job applications while your boss’s back is turned — actually felt like a break.

Untangling my financial worry for a year also cleared my head. I finally had time to confront some facts: if I continue in this industry, I will probably never be a homeowner. I will not have children I cannot afford. And, if I ever retire, it will likely be without savings.

I’m back doing doctoral work now. I study with a friend, Emily Wu, who is currently doing two unpaid internships. She’s an international student without a work visa. I’ve given her a pseudonym because she’s obligated by the provincial rules that govern her doctoral scholarship to deny that she works — sometimes 30 hours a week, on call, for her research supervisor’s partner.

Her second internship involves dressing sharply for two days a week at a small, swanky art gallery. “There was no paper, no contract, nothing legally binding, so I can’t protect myself,” she groans as we sit in her living room, staring at a stack of library books.

For Wu, a 25-year-old visual artist from Hong Kong, these jobs will prove to future employers that she has Canadian credentials. “It’s tough to choose between making money and investing in your future,” she says, knowing that she could otherwise spend time tutoring to pull in under-the-table cash. It’s the same choice most serial interns face each time they send out another resumé: groceries or employable skills?

The CIA has some advice for interns facing this question: if you think you should be paid, try asking — you never know. Learn about employment law in your province and make sure your position is legal. And, if you’ve been harassed, know that harassment isn’t exclusively a labour issue; you’re well within your rights to complain to a provincial human rights commission even if you feel like “the lowest of the low,” says Ciochon.

Not long ago, that feeling crept up my spine again.

“We can’t afford this!” I wailed, pointing a shaking hand at a pillowcase. I didn’t budget for new bedding, and my partner knows that breaking the rhythm of my mental number-crunching sets me on edge. I began pacing, licking my lips, ripping off a fingernail with my teeth.

“Don’t you understand? We, we can’t, we — ” I felt arms around me, a calm voice telling me to breathe. “We can’t afford this,” I hissed. Calm down. The familiar taste of tears made me gasp. Breathe. Slowly. I’m sick of this taste, this feeling.

I sank into the realization that even a doctoral degree won’t exempt me from the internship loop. I will soon need to decide whether even the best internships are worth the long-term costs. We really don’t need more pillowcases. “Don’t you understand?” I choked, my head between my knees. “Where the hell will the money come from?”


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s December 2013 issue with the title “All work no pay.”

Chelsea Temple Jones is an instructor in disability studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.


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