Because it’s a human right. Experience is a valuable asset when it comes to the business world, and every young person seeking a spot in their industry goes through this process. It’s like a right of passage, a romanticized time that we witness in movies and television shows. But that’s not the full story.
Unpaid internships are a backbone of the workforce, and allow businesses to get undesirable work done by someone they do not have to pay and who is generally very excited about it. However, the harsh truth is, this is a general human rights violation, directly from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25.1. If everyone has the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care… etc.,” then why are we paying young people, who are the most financially vulnerable, nothing for their work?
In an interview, an Edmonton-based business communicator (who asked to remain anonymous) stated that when they were working as an intern after college, it was the “hardest time imaginable.” She did not have the money to work just as an intern, and her parents were no longer supporting her, so she worked for seventy hours per week just to achieve a basic standard of living. She also mentioned that she barely remembers that time, because she was starving, burnt out and disconnected from her loved ones. She would “wake up, go to work, go to work, eat, sleep for a couple of hours and repeat.”
Beyond this harsh reality, the implementation of free labour is inherently inaccessible for everyone. While it is posited as an opportunity for young people to gain experience, it excludes those who cannot afford the time, energy and finances associated with “working for free.” It only considers those who are either supported by someone else or are willing to have more than one job at once, bringing problematic burnout culture and “the hustle” out at a young age. Additionally, unpaid internships leave poorer, disadvantaged and disabled youth completely out of these opportunities because of their socioeconomic status and abilities.
Canada needs more internship grants and needs to rely less on the free labour of youth. Government-funded ventures like the Serving Communities Internship Program or SCiP have emerged to help resolve the issue, but it is not enough. Under the SCiP guidelines, you can have an intern work up to 100 hours for a $1000 dollar grant. The average minimum wage in Canada is 11.40p/h, the highest being Alberta with $15p/h and the lowest being Nova Scotia at $11p/h. This average shows a flaw in the program whereas, it is possible to ask an intern to work for under the legal amount a person is allowed to be paid in Canada. One good thing the SCiP does is that it helps non-profit organizations and imposes strict guidelines about an intern’s role, namely ‘this intern is not your errand person.’ This being said, the program should extend beyond just university students and hopefully, have more money invested in the youth themselves.
And while money is not the most important thing in life, it is the only thing valuable in our capitalist society. It’s great to have an intern get proofs ready by 6 pm, but how do you feel about them going home to an empty kitchen? Are we losing the youth, because they have to work 2-3 jobs?
Just something to think about.