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Is “Free” the New Minimum Wage?

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It’s Tuesday morning, and I am sitting at my desk in the corner of my small, open-concept apartment where the living room and kitchen are all basically within arm’s reach. I’m listening to a show on CBC Radio One—BC Almanac—featuring an interview with Andew Langille, a Toronto based lawyer, about student internships. And I’m about to be shocked at what I hear.

Unpaid internships are illegal in British Columbia.

At the top of Langille’s list of industries where unpaid internships have become the norm: technology, journalism, and publishing. The blow publishing has taken in recent years is well known, with print rapidly diminishing, and organizations having the same workload despite dramatic staff cuts. Some publishing houses and magazines are able to secure government grant money to subsidize the salaries of their interns, but not all. It is with these companies where potential interns are faced with a choice: hold out for a gig that pays, or chalk it all up to experience.

According to BC’s Employment Standard’s Act, employers are obligated to pay minimum wage to interns.  Even honorariums are not legit, according to Langille, who runs the website Youth and Work. With recent news headlines about foreign worker controversies and BC employment statistics, the sensitivity dial for anything job related has been turned up. Late last week, Hootsuite (a successful Vancouver tech company) was called out for being in violation of BC labour laws. The company had posted eight internship positions that required a full-time, three-month commitmentwithout pay. (Globe and Mail story here.)

The Canadian Intern Association dedicates a page on their site to define the terms used to clarify work situations as they relate to provincial law. “Work”, according to the provincial Employment Standards Act, is defined as  “labour or services an employee performs for an employer whether in the employee’s residence or elsewhere”. The Act’s Interpretation Guidelines Manual then states that if the intern is performing “work”, they are considered an employee, and must be paid the provincial minimum wage. The site goes on to distinguish between a practicum and an internship—the former being a part of a program where the individual receives educational credit, and not necessarily money, for their work.

While listening to the program, questions swirled around me:

– Where is the line between an opportunity for grads to gain relevant work experience, and exploitation?

– If people aren’t getting paid for their work, should it be called “volunteering” instead of “interning”?

– Should larger companies be paying their interns, and smaller companies with less staff be allowed to have unpaid interns? Where do you draw the line?

– If interns are providing an employer with their newly learned skills, and the employer is charging money for the company’s services, shouldn’t they be paying the people that are ultimately making them money?

– Should there be standards for companies to maximize the number and quality of learning opportunities for interns?

– Is interning a right of passage into a given industry? Do new grads just need to accept that we have to pay our dues like those before us?

– What about just contributing for the sake of contributing to an industry, a magazine or cause that you believe in?

– Does the practice of unpaid internships discriminate against those that may not have the support system to live without an income—especially in cities with high living costs?

Whether you see this issue as black-and-white as Langille, or feel that there may be a grey zone, the Canadian Intern Association makes some practical suggestions that potential interns should discuss with their employer:

clarify the types of duties that will be a part of the internship

ask if there is potential for employment following the internship

keep records of correspondence, hours worked and any feedback received while working.

Pacific Rim Magazine wants to hear from you! Whether you’re a student, a new grad, a company that hires interns or has thought about hiring interns, please leave your comments on our Facebook page!

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