Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Not-So-Sweet Nothings

While I have written about unpaid internships briefly in the past, now seems a good time to revisit this predatory practice so eagerly imposed by the corporately conscienceless. While at one time internships were seen as a legitimate and constructive way to gain both valuable work experience and contacts for future employment, the system has, in many cases, devolved into mere serfdom, aided and abetted by government legislation that is more honoured in the breach than in its observance.

Today, two newspapers, The National Post and The Toronto Star, have articles detailing the sad state that desperate students seeing work and constructive experience find themselves in.

In Toronto, there is this story:

Samantha May, now 21, found herself cleaning rooms, including toilets, at an airport hotel for three months in 2011. She was required to clean 16 rooms a day, just like paid housekeeping staff.

“There were days I didn’t want to get up in the morning, mostly because I wasn’t getting paid. It’s like, ‘I don’t have to do this.’ ”

“Some men are very disgusting. Some ladies just don’t care about hair all over the place. I found a used condom in the bed once. That wasn’t very pretty,” she said. May was still in high school when she started as an intern, but her peers were in college.

Samantha received nary an honorarium for her labours.

John Moore, in The National Post, offers this:

In today’s job market internships are a means of squeezing free labour out of qualified workers whose only other option is making $8 an hour serving $4 coffees at Starbucks. When interns dare suggest their labour might be worth something their “employers” scold them about having a bad attitude and insist there’s a line up outside their door of people who would do anything for the same opportunity. Sadly, those managers are often right — interns are expendable, thanks to a dire economy for which today’s youth are blameless.

Moore goes on to illustrate his thesis with two examples. There is Frank, who had an internship at a major telecom in its “Professional Management Program.” He worked Monday to Friday, eight hours a day, and was supervised by another intern. At the end of four months he quit after being told that there were “no immediate hiring opportunities,” but the company wanted him to stay on as unpaid labour.

There are also, it seems, unanticipated perils to unpaid internships. Moore tells the story of Helen, who worked without pay for six months in a major company until a job position became available. Sadly, she was told that volunteers could not apply for 'real' positions. As a further insult, with 14 months of unpaid work on her resume, Helen was told by a potential employer:

“I can’t justify giving a job to someone who values their time so little that they would work for free”.

This would be considered humour in the Monty Python vein were it not so sad.

Perhaps even sadder is the almost indisputable fact that our governments, both provincial and federal, are so much in the thrall of their corporate overlords that nothing will change, no new legislation nor enforcement of current legislation will occur.

It is time for people to get very, very angry.


  1. I have been reading a lot about this lately. There was an unpaid busboy position at a fancy Vancouver hotel/restaurant stirring up ire a few weeks ago. I thought it might be fun to apply for an internship somewhere and then do the job really, really badly. You could take some politician's lunch away from him as soon as it is delivered, explaining that since you aren't paid, you have to eat somehow.

    I am angry about this. It's disgusting. I'm all for volunteering my time for a good cause, but waiting tables, office work and hotel housekeeping for profitable businesses is not a good cause. A little creative protest might be in line.

    1. I love your subversive thinking, Karen! Dismantling a corrupted system from within really appeals to me. Perhaps its time for all of us to stop acting like polite Canadians and take off the gloves, eh?

  2. If the job isn't worth paying to have it done, then it must not be worth having done.
    I think volunteerism merely encourages poverty by taking away paying jobs.
    It also fosters the bizarre notion that things can be done for free, no matter how much it costs the volunteer to do them.

    1. I can't say I agree with you, Dan. There are many programs and services that would not exist without volunteers; as much as I feel ambivalent about them, food banks are but one example. Others would include people driving cancer patients to their appointments, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, serving breakfasts in school. etc.

      The big difference with internships is that those doing unpaid ones are reduced to serfdom to facilitate someone's profits.

  3. Walking dogs at the SPCA? The alternative is just euthanasia clinics. Reading to seniors in care homes? Bake sales to support a school trip?
    Actually, I am an anti-capitalist. I'd be happy to de-monetize the planet but our collective imagination (and probably greed) can't seem to see past capitalism.