Unpaid internships exacerbate the rampant inequalities in our labour market
National Football League (NFL) reporter Jane Slater sparked the ire of young journalists all over the Twittersphere earlier this month when she promoted an unpaid internship position. After receiving an avalanche of responses on how unpaid internships are unethical, unsustainable, and exploitative, she responded that this was simply the norm and that, “There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business.” She continued, “I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind.”
While Slater’s unwavering commitment to the practice of unpaid internships is baffling, she wasn’t exactly incorrect that they are omnipresent in media and journalism fields.
Although no career field could ever be a true meritocracy, unpaid internships are pushing us further and further from that ideal. This is because to even be able to work unpaid, you must start out with a base level of economic security and privilege.
A student who needs to pay their own way through university or support dependents would simply not be able to allocate their time and labour to a company not willing to pay them. This leads to a culture where the only people applying for these entry-level internships are those who already have a financial leg up.
Additionally, working for free can put interns in precarious situations. Despite the fact that, as of 2019, all interns in federally regulated industries, including unpaid student positions, received standard worker protections, there are still many interns across Canada left without proper protections. This ruling did not account for federal civil service jobs or positions under provincial jurisdiction. Thus, the burden of adequately caring for their unpaid interns is placed on the employer, who often has little incentive to provide anything above the bare minimum needed to not get sued.
Not to mention, the mere concept of unpaid internships perpetuates the notion that one’s labour can be removed from their pay. The more a young person gets used to not being paid for their work, the less they’ll value their labour as they move into positions later down the line, which may lead to them not properly advocating for themselves.
Full disclosure, I have worked an unpaid internship. I am privileged enough that working for pay part-time over a summer and interning the rest was enough to sustain me. Looking back, I hate myself for offering my labour to such an unethical system, but at the same time, it’s what I was told was common, if not necessary, to have a career in media.
Yet, I now believe that no internship, no matter the prestige, would be worth selling out my labour for free. I can no longer in good conscience prop up any company not willing to pay their workers a living wage, because when privileged people feed into these systems, they’ll continue functioning regardless of backlash. There are so many resources such as Concordia’s Housing and Job Resource Centre (HOJO) or Career and Planning Services (CAPS), that make it easier to find paid opportunities and avoid falling victim to the unpaid internship scam.
If we all as students reject the concept of unpaid internships wholeheartedly, the industry will eventually be forced to follow suit.
Graphic by Alex Hutchins