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If only unpaid interns were this organized

Sean Brady Aug. 11, 2014 Op-Ed 2 Comments

If we can pay inmates, we can pay interns – what needs to happen to stop the practice of unpaid internships?

Canadian prisoners have filed suit against the government claiming that the recent pay cut infringes on their Charter rights. What would happen if unpaid interns were this organized? (Derek Key/Flickr Commons)

Canadian prisoners have filed suit against the government claiming that the recent pay cut infringes on their Charter rights. What would happen if unpaid interns were this organized? (Derek Key/Flickr Commons)

When Canadian inmates banded together to sue the government over pay cuts, my initial reaction was surprise that their pay was significant enough in the first place for any cuts to really matter.

According to an Aug. 10 article by CBC News, inmate pay was cut by 30 per cent by the Correctional Service of Canada. According to claims made in the suit, their pay is based on the 1981 minimum wage minus an 85 per cent deduction. They might make up to $6.90 per day, but on average receive something like $3 per day, according to the article.

By 2014 standards, this seems like little more than a token wage only in place to distinguish their work from slavery. But they are prisoners after all, and there are significant expenses behind incarceration. (Whether or not many of them should be there in the first place is an argument to be made later, perhaps.)

But, nonetheless they are paid something.

In fact, one complainant in the suit, an inmate at a Kingston, Ont. institution, told CBC News that the pay cut would affect his ability to pay for university courses he’s taking, meaning fewer phone calls to professors and difficulty paying for stamps to mail in his assignments.

While this particular inmate’s commitment to bettering himself from the inside is certainly admirable, I can’t help but compare it to the struggles that students face, even with their freedom. How many students spent this past summer working for nothing at an unpaid internship?

Well… funny thing about that. We don’t really know.

Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison broached the issue in question period in May 2013.

“Stats Canada does not track unpaid internships in Canada, and you can’t manage what you can’t or don’t measure. So will the government take the first step and direct Stats Canada to track the number of young Canadians who are working today in unpaid internships?”

Parliamentary secretary Kellie Leitch, with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, responded but did not answer Brison’s question.

But there were two researchers at the University of Victoria who would have liked to see that question answered. James Attfield and Isabelle Couture are public administration grad students at UVic, and they decided to conduct their own research on unpaid interns in Canada.

According to their preliminary results seen in a May 21 Canadian Press article, 83 per cent of respondents said they earned less than the provincial minimum wage or nothing at all.

It shouldn’t take two grad student researchers to answer questions that are critical to Canada’s economy.

By some estimates, Canada has nearly 300,000 unpaid interns. Compare this to the twice-as-large United Kingdom, where there were an estimated 100,000 unpaid interns in 2010. In early May, the British House of Commons voted 181 to 19 to ban unpaid internships, a first step towards the ban becoming a law.

The same needs to happen in Canada. The risk of losing easy access to on-the-job experience is a risk we’re going to have to take. It’s simply not enough to pay someone with an opportunity to gain experience – not when students are struggling more and more with their finances and are forced into making financial decisions that could have long-lasting effects on their lives.

Students shouldn’t be pushed towards a prison of their own making. The pressure to acquire a post-secondary degree is bad enough. The expectation that they should work for free during or immediately after their degree is simply absurd.

2 Comments

  1. Mick Sweetman Aug. 13, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Hi, just wanted to let you know that we republished this article on The Dialog’s website. Thanks for your commentary on this timely issue.