Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Slavery, Then And Now

Not being a regular moviegoer, much preferring the tightly-scripted fare offered on cable that is adult in the best sense of the word, I only know from media reports that 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture. According to the Internet Movie Database, it is about the following:

In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

While not intending in any way to minimize the terrible suffering and exploitation suffered by black people in the United States then and now, it would be remise of me not to point out that here in Canada, we have our own form of slavery, which we call unpaid internships.

While I have written about corporate exploitation of young people's desperation before, this seems a propitious time for an update. As reported in The Toronto Star, unpaid internships appear to be on the rise throughout Canada, thanks to a patchwork of regulations and the reluctance of interns to 'blow the whistle' on their corporate exploiters lest they withhold their much-coveted letters of reference.

According to some estimates there are "as many as 300,000 people currently working for free at some of the country’s biggest, and wealthiest, corporations."

Perhaps this egregious example serves as emblematic of the sorts of abuses that are taking place:

Last fall, Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel sparked an uproar after it posted an ad seeking people to bus tables for free.

“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 ad was quickly taken down amid a social-media furor.

Isabelle Couture and James Attfield, both University of Victoria students in the Master’s of Public Public Administration program, are conducting a survey for the Canadian Research Association. They discovered, much to their surprise, that unpaid internships are being tracked neither at the provincial nor the federal level. And the need for organized tracking is great:

“When you ask a lot of these companies, like Bell — which has a massive internship program — they make it sound like they’re doing people a favour, that they’re generously providing work and experience,” says Attfield.

“But it’s really nothing more than a way to save money; they’re obviously not doing it out of generosity.”

Ma Bell, of course, repudiates such odious suggestions of corporate malfeasance:

A Bell spokeswoman says its internship program, which employs about 300 people a year, “offers learning opportunities in a real-world corporate setting. None of the participants’ activities replace work by Bell employees or support our business operations.”

Hmm. I guess that begs the question of what all those young people at Bell are doing while interning there. Sharpening pencils, perhaps?

There may be some relief on the way. On Tuesday, Ontario New Democrat MPP Jonah Schein introduced a private member's bill (no word yet on whether party leader Howath has yet tested the political winds to see where she stands on the issue) introduced a private member's bill that calls for the following:

- Grant unpaid interns more protections under the Ontario Employment Standards Act, such as regular work day, eating periods, and holidays

- Require employers to provide written notice to the Ontario government when they take on unpaid interns. This would assist the Ministry of Labour with data collection and enforcement.

- Create a complaint system that allows complaints to be submitted by third parties and interns anonymously

- Require employers to post a poster with information about intern’s rights in Ontario in the workplace prepared by the Ministry of Labour

And on the federal level, last fall Toronto MP Andrew Cash introduced a private member's bill, Bill C-542, calling on the government to establish a legal framework for the labour laws that govern what has become the new normal in the Canadian job market: precarious employment. Cash calls his proposal the Urban Workers Strategy.

Will any of these efforts bear fruit? Given the current mentality pervading all political parties (and yes, that includes the NDP) whereby businesses and corporations, not people, are now the chief objects of government ministrations, I am not especially hopeful. But, as with all worthwhile causes, it is crucial that the fights for the betterment of people be vigorously conducted.

Otherwise, we might as well all admit defeat and just give ourselves over totally to the forces that care not a whit for any of us.


  1. It's all about finding a new word for an old condition, Lorne. It's Orwellian.

    1. Very true, Owen. And the threat of the whip has been replaced with the threat of withholding a reference to ensure they remember their place.

  2. When I read 1984 in 1968 i thought that it was an impossibility. We deserve everything that we have reaped. What a greedy bunch of motherfuckers we all are in the so called Western World.

    1. It is never enough for some people, is it, Astone?

  3. My mother was born in Warsaw in 1930, and she still defends Poutine. Must be the cheese!!!