Concerns are raised about whether working for free is worth the experience gained
By Mina Mazumder and Raphael Pirro
The recent student strike against unpaid internships had the media focusing on a situation that touches tens of thousands of students across Quebec. Among the 39 student associations actively protesting unpaid internships, only one represented students in the field of media, journalism and communications.
“What is mostly mentioned by media outlets when talking about unpaid work are sectors like health and education,” says Amanda Masson, who is responsible for the socio-political affairs at the Association facultaire des étudiants en langues et communications (AFELC). “Communications is in the shadows, but we are still part of this group of students whose internships are rarely paid.”
AFELC represents students in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM). They claim that too many of its members are required to go through extensive unpaid internships — many of which are time-consuming and have to fit in with an already-busy schedule.
Trying to draw a reliable portrait of entry-level positions in the media is not an easy task. There is no set of rules or general guidelines that govern the media sector as a whole. Moreover, there is a prevalent lack of official governmental data concerning the issue.
The notion of work, therefore, is elastic.
Where can the line between an intern and an employee be drawn?
An employee is defined as “a person who works for an employer and who is entitled to a wage” according to Quebec’s Act Respecting Labour Standards. Interns fit in with the first definition, but not always in the latter.
However, in the Interpretation Guide published by The Quebec Commission des Normes du Travail, the governmental body charged with enforcing labour laws in the province, the Commission emphasizes that the definition of an “employee” does not include “voluntary arrangements,” a category by which an unpaid intern may fall under.
The trade-off between an intern and an employer is then understood to be different: the experience becomes the pay. Working, whether for free or not, becomes an opportunity. Their relation – described as a “voluntary arrangement.”
Nonetheless, the Interpretation Guide states: “alleging that the smooth operation of the enterprise does not require the hiring of new employees, that the applicant has no experience or that the workers agreed to work for free does not justify non-compliance with labour standards.” This would imply that some abuses on the job-market could be sanctioned or penalized – but again, the vagueness of these definitions makes it hard to decipher the legality of every specific case.
Media companies of every stripe can benefit from the situation – and in this grey area, recent graduates are the most vulnerable because of their eagerness to work and the flimsiness of their portfolio.
Some internships are, by design, part of the curriculum. That is especially true in the fields of education and health. Students won’t make a dime, but will be rewarded with credits instead.
Quebec lays out two instances where internships can be paid less than the minimum wage: where an intern is enrolled in a vocational training recognized by law, and when the internship is being completed during the school year and approved by their institution and the Minister of Education, Leisure and Sport.
Such is the case at Concordia University’s Department of Journalism, where part-time internships can take the shape of elective for-credit courses. But Wayne Larsen, the internship coordinator for the department, insists : “That’s basically the only time when we would actually condone an unpaid internship,” he says. “All of the other times, if you are going to take an internship, you should get paid for it.”
In a highly competitive business, multitudes of students, fresh-out-of-school journalists, and entry-level media workers have to resort to these unpaid positions and pick up unpaid freelance work to beef-up their portfolio – whether for credit or not.
“I have a colleague who did an internship in event management and the event was benefitting from the work of eight unpaid interns in a row to set up the whole event,” recounts Masson. “She felt as though she was being ripped off.”
Nevertheless, in order to get ahead, many will jump on these opportunities for the push they think it will give to their career.
A journalist and undergraduate student at Concordia, who wishes to remain anonymous, holds a largely favorable view of the two full-time, unpaid internships she completed over a total period of six weeks: “I got valuable knowledge out of it and I’m a more qualified journalist,” she says, “I have better skills.”
On the other hand, she recognizes a crucial point that was also raised by the students during the week-long strike: not many students can afford financially to give up a month and a half of summer to commit to an unpaid internship.
She added that she only did it because she was privileged enough to do so. “I’m not in a situation where I’m going to have to move out because I can’t find paid work,” she says. “I guess I could just keep living at home forever and do unpaid internships.”
Christopher Zanti, a Concordia alumnus and freelance copywriter for more than six years, says that unpaid internships are a driver of inequality of opportunity. “People who are financially secure can get away with it and people who aren’t, don’t end up getting the experience they need,” Zanti says.
Masson concurs with Zanti: “At UQAM, we have precarious students. Not every student has the chance to go to school, work a part-time job and do an internship at the same time,” she says. “While building a portfolio is important for some, at the end of the day, some students can’t afford working for free because it accentuates their financial insecurity.”
Moreover, finding paid internships “is a matter of having good contacts,” Masson says. Contacts which often are made through… internships.
Quebec is far from being alone in this situation. In some countries, the issue has become so widespread for it to deserve its own acronym: UWE, or Unpaid Work Experience. Last year
in the UK, some MPs have called for a ban on unpaid internships, with one MP describing them as “the acceptable face of unpaid labour in modern Britain today.”
Some paid internships do exist, and in some cases, pay rather well. At certain Canadian news outlets such as the Montreal Gazette, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, interns can expect a decent salary. However, “these ones are paid well but they’re extremely, extremely difficult to get and are highly competitive,” says our anonymous student.
The difference between paid and unpaid internships is not just about money: paid internships would be seen in a brighter light to the eyes of employers. According to United States labour statistics, the interns with a paid internship experience under their belt receive job offers 26% more frequently than those with an unpaid internship. Between those with unpaid work experience and those with no experience at all, the difference would be of a meager 1%.
Larsen says that once journalism students graduate, they should demand their work be paid to prevent a lowering of the market value for all media workers in the field. “Once you graduate, you should charge your work,” he says, “because it is valuable, and if you don’t charge for your work, that lessens the value of all journalism.”
Zanti is on the same page. For him, the perceived devaluation of journalists’ work warrants action: “my mindset around it is that if we all collectively agree to have other industries pay us for what we are worth, they will have no choice but to pay us.”
For the moment, the Quebec government responded to the students’ demands by saying it would look into the issue. It claimed it didn’t have enough data at the moment, and asked for some time.
Concordia’s Journalism Student Association (JSA) will hold a General Assembly on Dec. 5 at 6 p.m. to discuss a motion for strike against unpaid internships in journalism.
Beforehand, the executive of internal affairs of the JSA, Katelyn Thomas, will be sitting down with Dr. David Secko, the chair of the journalism department, and Dr. Andrea Hunter, the undergraduate program director, to discuss what will happen in case of a strike.
“We are wholeheartedly behind it,” Thomas says. “We are going to support them. We are here to make people’s voices heard so we are going to support their efforts.”
Mina Mazumder is a writer, journalist, and artist who enjoys telling stories and promoting positive social change.
Raphael Pirro is a journalism student with a background in physical geography and philosophy.