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By: Sunanna Bhasin
I remember scrolling through endless lists of summer jobs last year trying to find something worth my time. I had specific criteria to fill when looking at potential job, the biggest one being a job that actually offered to pay me. Students want experience, yes, but most of us would like to pay off our student loans or help our parents out. Some of us would even like to save for post-graduation. So when I see unpaid internships plaguing job listings when I have bills to pay, just like any other working adult, I can’t help but clench my fists at the blatant disregard for the hardworking, often loan-bearing post-secondary students.
Unpaid internships are a means of manipulating post-secondary students into doing free labour. Students are told that they need real-life work experience to get anywhere after graduation, and so they feel compelled to take whatever they can get. However, there are students who are struggling to pay their tuition and still require that important experience. Should they be expected to compromise and work for free? Companies who leech off unpaid internships are well aware that students will likely work without complaint because they are looking for reference letters and likely hope to receive a full-time job offer at the end. Companies may also exploit their interns by giving them gruelling tasks that may not provide them with the skillset they’re looking for, or set ridiculous hours for students who are often not in a position to reject them.
Economically speaking, it makes little sense that companies would want to have students work for free. Efficiency wage theory states that firms that pay efficiency wages, or wages that are higher than the market equilibrium or average, do so in order to avoid shirking on the job, reduce turnover, and attract productive employees. There is the possibility that students won’t neglect their job because they are looking for other rewards, such as the aforementioned reference letter (so that they can get a paid job in the future). However, the third point about attracting productive employees is out the window. Just as I scroll past unpaid internships, I’m sure there are many others who refuse to work for free. These are students who would potentially make very valuable employees.
The unpaid internship is a loophole in Canada’s labour laws. The minimum wage laws do not cover every single type of employment, and internships happen to be one of them. This needs to change. If a company is making profit, it has no right to ‘hire’ individuals to work for them without pay. Using the label “volunteer position” in place of “unpaid internship” does not suddenly make the practice okay. Volunteer positions should exist only at non-profit organizations because they don’t have a means to pay all employees. It is ridiculous to be able to take advantage of students who need experience in a certain field but also bear the burden of debt on their shoulders. Students should be able to obtain valuable work experience while at the same time making money to put towards continuing education or to pay off existing bills.
Ultimately, the unpaid internship is a means of exploiting students by perpetuating the notion that experience should be their primary concern and that everything else should be secondary, when in fact, students have real financial worries that need to be addressed while they are still in school, rather than later in life, when they are knee-deep in debt.