Why unpaid internships can be unfair to those who can’t afford to work for free

By: Haeley DiRisio

For students, summer is always a great time to pick up a part time job and save some cash for the upcoming school year. With students often not working during the school year, a summer job helps cover expenses like rent and cost of living, as well as providing some pocket money. 

Many universities require an internship to graduate. Even when they are not mandatory, internships are a great time to gain experience in one’s chosen field. The problem for students is that many of these internships are unpaid. 

Adriana Cavalieri, who graduated from Mohawk College, was working full-time hours for her unpaid internship, while balancing school and her own eyelash extensions business. While working at her internship in advertising for an all natural skin-care and cleaning products brand, Cavalieri said that although she gained valuable work experience, she felt the company was taking advantage of free work.

As for her eyelash extensions business, Cavalieri said her internship prevented her from working as much as she otherwise would have done.

“I was only doing one, maybe two lashes a week,” she said. “I really wasn’t doing a lot because I was so drained. After work or school, or sometimes both, I would have to come home and do lashes for another two hours.” 

During this time, she was still living with her parents, but Cavalieri said if she had been living away from home, “it definitely would have steered [her] to look for a paid internship.” Cavalieri mentioned that she and friends from her program struggled to find paid internships. 

Stacey Sent-Doux graduated from Carleton University last spring but opted out of doing an internship. She was able to do some social media work at her part-time retail job but said it would have benefited her to get more experience in social media.

 “I wish I did more sometimes because after I graduated and went job hunting, a lot of them wanted experience,” Sent-Doux said.

Sent-Doux landed a job soon after graduation but felt her lack of experience is what led to her being let go. She decided that doing an unpaid internship wasn’t feasible for her at the time, and after thinking it over, felt it wouldn’t benefit her.

“Unpaid internships are just free labor,” she said. 

Sent-Doux said that her roommate found a paid internship with the Government of Canada and was taken on after her internship ended.

“The paid internships do end up paying off, especially if it's with the government or something reputable,” Sent-Doux said.

A 2017 article by CBC mentioned that the issue with finding paid internships is that they are few and far between: “Western University, for example, has 3,049 unpaid internships across 10 faculties compared to 632 that are paid.” 

In Canada, it is illegal to work as an unpaid intern unless you are a student. The Employment Standard Act states, “The ESA does not apply to an individual who performs work under a placement program approved by a university or college of applied arts and technology.” 

Unpaid internships are beneficial for making connections and gaining experience, and they could lead to employment opportunities. Those who are able to work at an unpaid internship can gain valuable experience, which may boost their resume and their opportunity to find a job after graduation.

However, the fact is that for some students, unpaid work is not feasible. Students from low-income families or who are financially independent face a major disadvantage when it comes to unpaid internships.

During his time at the University of Guelph, Carter Winsor did an unpaid internship at Matthew House, a non-for-profit organization that provides support to refugees in Canada. Winsor felt he gained valuable work experience that provided a stepping stone to finding the job he is in today. He was able to take the unpaid role because he didn’t have financial barriers to worry about. However, he said that friends of his had to turn down internships “because they were either unpaid or didn’t pay enough.”

An article from The Queen’s University Journal in Feb. 2020 said that the standard of unpaid internships “perpetuates a culture of privilege in the workplace and promotes an elitist society that often excludes marginalized communities.”

While unpaid internships continue to exist in Canada, they create a barrier between those who are able to gain valuable work experience and leave school with confidence in their abilities, and those who do not have the means to work for free and therefore miss out on these opportunities.

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