Joining forces to denounce exploitation and sexual violence

A protester chants through a megaphone and rallies the crowd minutes before marching from the downtown Concordia campus. Photo by Alex Hutchins

30,000 Quebec students rally to demand salary wages for unpaid internships

Nearly 30,000 students across Quebec mobilized to protest against unpaid internships and denounce the sexual violence many students, particularly women, experience in the workplace on Thursday, March 8. In tandem with International Women’s Day, the Montreal Coalition for paid internships organized their third large-scale protest to demand that student interns be given proper wage compensation, as well as access to the internal resources at their workplaces that are exclusively available to paid employees.

The coalition was formed in early June 2017 by multiple student unions and associations to unite against labour exploitation. “We think that by asking for wages for interns it will change the situation because, in Quebec […] when you’re an intern, you are below every [paid] worker, and you don’t have protection,” said Kaelle Stapels, one of the organizers of the march and a member of the Montreal Coalition for paid internships.

Unpaid internships are illegal in Quebec, except when the student is completing an internship for course credit either for an approved educational institution, as part of vocational training or if the student is working for a non-profit organization, according to the Canadian Intern Association.

Jeanne Dufresne, a Université du Québec à Montréal student protester, explained how degrees that require students to do a minimum number of hours as an intern before graduating are particularly problematic. According to Dufresne, an internship is a “full-time job [and students] need to do that to get their diploma, so that’s why it’s frustrating, because after the work, they need to go [find] a part-time job” to subsidize the costs of being in school and working full-time with no income.

“When I’m doing my internship as a nurse and I’m with my patients, I’m legally responsible for [them] as I would be if I were a real nurse. But I’m not paid,” Stapels said.

While the coalition demands that every student, regardless of gender, be fairly compensated as working interns, many of its members emphasize that women are more vulnerable when it comes to labour exploitation and sexual harassment in the workplace.

A crowd of 300 protesters chant while they trek uphill towards Docteur-Penfield Avenue along Atwater Avenue. Photo by Alex Hutchins

Although it’s possible to experience sexual violence in every program or field, Stapels explained that women who are in programs such as nursing, social work or education have an increased chance of experiencing exploitation and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Stapels also explained that because female interns in particular are not given the same protection as paid employees through their placement’s administration, if they experience sexual harassment while working, often their only option is to use the resources available through their university. “And we all know schools do nothing,” Stapels said. “The resources that are in place now, they’re not [enough]. They don’t do the job.”

According to a report titled l’Enquête sexualité, sécurité et interactions en milieu universitaire (ESSIMU) conducted by over a dozen researchers, about 37 per cent of university students have reported incidents of sexual violence or harassment in Quebec training programs. One third of the reported incidents occured within a hierarchical context. Due to the power dynamics found within academic institutions, the report explains, students are often at a disadvantage when reporting sexual misconduct.

The march was organized mainly to protest against unpaid internships and sexual violence in the workplace, however, given that it occured in conjunction with International Women’s Day, many protesters gathered to denounce gendered violence altogether. Maintaining an open dialogue between people and encouraging women to speak up about the problems they experience daily, explained student protester Giverny Welsch, “[is] what is so remarkable about what’s happening right now.” Welsch emphasized how this open dialogue is key to formulating both a community and a movement that are geared towards inclusivity. “We’re humans because we are able to communicate.”

A crowd of 300 protesters chant while they trek uphill towards Docteur-Penfield Avenue along Atwater Avenue. Photo by Alex Hutchins

Building relationships by empowering women, said Lucie Arson, a protester who preferred to use a pseudonym, is the first step towards starting a movement and creating a strong community that works towards positive change as a united front. “[As] a non-binary trans person, and as a sex worker, I kind of feel alone and not represented […] but right now, I’m feeling great,” having met people with similar experiences, Arson said. “There’s a [feeling of] solidarity.”

Sexism still exists, “[it] is a problem everyday,” said Arson, and it can be life-threatening for countless women all over the world. “Patriarchy works in a way where we are always opposed to other women around us, so I think it’s time to rebuild these relationships and fight together.”

Photos by Alex Hutchins

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