Experience or exploitation? Conference ramps up debate on unpaid internships
By Anqi Shen
The culture sector, long known for its precarious working conditions, is shaping up to be more arduous for its workers. On October 19, a mix of students, professionals, artists and union leaders converged in Toronto to talk labour injustice at the ‘Will Work for Exposure’ conference at Ryerson University.
Organized by Ryerson’s Centre for Labour Management Relations and members of the Canadian Media Guild and ACTRA, the conference addressed topics including wage theft, copyright and workers’ rights.
The event also provided the venue for one of Canada’s first public debates on unpaid internships, according to organizer Nicole Cohen.
Kim Pittaway, former editor-in-chief of Chatelaine, who has taught journalism at Ryerson and the University of King’s College, noted in her panel speech that getting a first job as a journalist is much harder now than when she was starting out.
“When I did connect with an employer, I was paid an actual wage. And that doesn’t happen these days with the students I have taught,” said Pittaway. “For most of them, the reality is they won’t be considered to be hirable until they’ve done—not one internship—but two or three or four unpaid internships back to back.”
Pittaway said students should be especially wary of unpaid work at for-profit organizations.
“There’s a problem when profit-generating organizations reap the benefits of younger workers,” she said. “A lot of young journalists are surprised and grateful when people pay them, and they undervalue their own work.”
Other panelists expressed similar sentiments in the afternoon session on unpaid internships.
One was Agata Zieba, a former journalism student who spoke about her experience at two unpaid, full-time stints in the magazine industry.
“I did everything from administrative work, to writing online articles, to plenty of fact-checking. Everyday I pushed myself to work harder and for longer than I was told to,” said Zieba. “I didn’t want to be forgotten once the next round of interns replaced me in four months or six weeks.”
“I felt I was getting great experience, but I admit that I kept wondering, why am I working for free?” she said.
Edward Keenan, senior editor at The Grid, also weighed in, having started out as an unpaid intern and also having managed an internship program.
“I don’t think I’d be a journalist if unpaid internships didn’t exist. I was competing with too many people vastly more qualified than me, at least on paper.”
Referring to internships at The Grid, formerly Eye Weekly, Keenan noted, “If those positions were paid, there are thousands of mid-career journalists in this city who could take them first.”
He also pointed to the oversupply of workers in the industry, with the number wanting work far exceeding the number of jobs available.
“Virtually no one enters the culture industry because they desperately need to feed their families. We’re not forced into this business by circumstance,” he said.
Why, then, aren’t more young people turning away from culture work? The answer has to do with the ‘reality TV model’, according to keynote speaker Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.
“Culture work is more gratifying,” he said. “People will be drawn to the contest.”
In his speech, Ross spoke about higher levels of free labour after the 2008 financial crisis. He argued that, among other factors, student debt contributes to an increasingly unfair labour market.
“Debt is a condition of entry into the workforce for most,” he said, comparing this to a “modern form of indenture.”
“If [students] are lucky enough to land paid work, a large part of their wages are more and more used to pay off loans taken out simply to prepare themselves for employability in the first place.”
In recent years, debate over whether unpaid internships are exploitive has been heating up in Canada and the US.
Many argue that these positions are restricting access to the culture sector, giving an edge to those who can afford to take on unpaid work. Currently, there are no regulations for unpaid internships in Canada and, as several speakers pointed out, few reliable statistics on the subject.
“There’s very little being written about it,” said Andrew Langille, Toronto-based lawyer and blogger at Youth and Work.
Langille noted that unpaid internships not only affect young workers, but also recent immigrants, workers in their 20s and 30s, and older workers switching careers.
“It’s very difficult for government and academics like myself to comment in any meaningful way without knowing the scope of the issue,” said Langille. “I think [data collection] is a big start.”