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Canada / The issue about unpaid internships

When Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel posted an ad for unpaid interns to work busing tables in its dining room (“As a Busperson, you will take pride in the integral role you play in supporting your Food and Beverage Colleagues…”) it quickly set off a firestorm in social media — and an uneasy silence elsewhere.

Sensing a PR debacle in the making, the hotel quickly took down the ad. Unpaid internships have become a sensitive issue, the subject of lawsuits in both the U.S. and Canada from former interns demanding to be paid for the work they had done. To many of the commenters flaming the hotel online, the practice was clearly barbaric, a throwback to the days of child labour or worse. “At least the chimneysweeps got paid” seemed to be the general sentiment.

Yet walk into any media outlet, MP’s office, or NGO, the kinds of folks who usually get up in arms about this sort of thing, and chances are you will find an unpaid intern or three performing some menial task. And not only there. Hard data is scarce, but rough estimates of the number of unpaid interns run into the hundreds of thousands.

That has critics, at least the ones who aren’t hiring them themselves, cranking up the rhetoric. When a Tory senator advertised for an unpaid intern, he was accused of “slapping young Canadians in the face.” According to Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer, “the message to youth is: you’re worthless, you aren’t deserving of a wage, and I can exploit you with impunity.” A writer for iPolitics calls interns the “new Canadian underclass.”

Why employers would be so eager to make use of them is not hard to fathom. Theoretically the employer is not supposed to derive any benefit from taking them on — they’re supposed to be training, not doing work that could be done by paid employees — at least in the three provinces that regulate the practice. But who’s kidding whom?

What’s harder to explain is why the kids accept the offers. The easy answer (it’s exploitation, innit?) seems harder to apply in a case where the pay is not low, but zero. People may be hard up enough for cash to take a lousy, low-wage job — it’s better than nothing, after all — but when the pay is not, in fact, better than nothing, why not just stay home? Plainly they must feel they are getting something in return: not as much as they’d like, but enough to make it worth their time.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at 

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via Unpaid internships: A sensitive issue |

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