Internships have become a fixture of the economy. Asking around about the value of working without pay in order to get some real world currency with employers is to solicit decidedly mixed responses. Descriptors range from “worthless” to “depressing” and “annoying bullshit” to “it saved my life”. Where is the truth we might wonder at a time when the employment prospects for youth seem as difficult as ever? We are told with religious certainty that maximum education is required for success in the new workplace and being an intern is therefore to be embraced. Young people often serve more than one and yet the internship, for many, is just another stretch on the road to nowhere, a feature of underemployment and poverty.
The downside of interning has struggled to emerge within the story of work and employment as it has come to be known since the 1980s. The mythology of internship remains strong, in part, because there are success stories. So, what of the time-wasting, depressing, free-lunch-for-business critique of interning? Well, it’s becoming especially important now that legalistic arguments are being advanced that large-scale use of interns may actually be illegal, not just morally iffy, but contrary to reasonable expectations of the social conduct of business and government?
Canada appears to be catching up to the States and the UK where the negative take on interning is a much more evolved and visible story, and has been for a while. The University of Toronto Student Union spoke up this week on behalf of some 300,000 unpaid interns across the country in nearly every kind of industry, taking a position that such internships are exploitve. UTSU’s letter to Ontario’s Minister of Labour received a mediocre response from that office and seems to have been pushed out of the media by the Boston attacks.
Letter to Yasir Naqvi from UTSU regarding unpaid internships
Coincidentally, a social media/brand management firm in British Columbia called HootSuite has been so embarrassed, in the online world in particular, at the backlash against its use of unpaid interns it has stopped the practice and going forward will pay interns. Clearly, their interns have been doing something of monetary value and their lawyers must have told them there is merit, and therefore risk to HootSuite, in the argument that interning is illegal.
Unpaid HootSuite interns get back pay itworldcanada.com
The book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin made a project of understanding internships in the United States and is brutal reading. Perlin allows for the potential value of interning, offers numerous solutions but finds too many things wrong with the phenomenon for it to remain the way it is. He sets out the scale, meaning and implications of what has become a social norm.
These are not your father’s internships Ross Perlin 2012 NYT opinion piece
Ross Perlin speaking at Google headquarters 2011 58:17
In the UK we find an ongoing legal case in which a 24-year-old museum volunteer, Caitt Reilly, receiving a job seeker’s benefit was required to work without wages at a retail chain called Poundland, British equivalent of a dollar store. Ms. Reilly is part of a challenge to the legislation requiring unpaid commerical work for social welfare benefits mounted in the courts. Her example has stirred a large amount of emotion and the government was compelled to amend a bill in parliament to prevent back pay being given to those in unpaid-work-for-benefit situations like Ms. Reilly’s.
For many observers her case speaks to the miserable nature of the current coalition government steering the UK towards austerity and seeming to lack any other idea beyond cutbacks to public programs and lower taxes for the wealthy.
Poundland ruling ‘blows big hole’ through government work schemes
guardian.co.uk – see video, other links & comments section
International Lessons: youth unemployment in the global context
53-page .pdf version of a January 2013 report from Lancaster University’s Work Foundation which finds the UK comparing poorly to, yes, you guessed it, Germany when it comes to moving young people from education to employment.
image: Wikimedia Commons