My Thoughts on Unpaid Internships. Agree or Disagree?

Would it surprise you if I said that unpaid internships were illegal in British Columbia? Well, they are.

Here it is in writing from British Columbia Employment Standards Act:

An “internship” is on-the-job training offered by an employer to provide a person with practical experience. Often internships are offered to persons who have completed a diploma or degree program and are seeking employment. Completing an internship does not itself result in an academic certificate or diploma. If the duties performed by interns fall within the definition of “work” contained in the Act, the intern falls within the definition of “employee”, and the agency using the services of an intern falls within the definition of “employer”, internships will be considered “work” for the purposes of the Act.

And here is the definition of “work”:

  • The labour or services performed by an employee, and
  • Being on call for an employer at a location designated by the employer, except the employee’s residence.

Time spent by an employee performing labour or service for an employer is time worked and time for which wages are payable. Labour or service can be performed in the employee’s residence or elsewhere.

So unless you’re just chilling in an office observing, not actually doing any “work”, your unpaid internship is against British Columbia law. Apparently, however, the majority of companies both small and large in Vancouver have yet to recognize this. And this irritates me.

I am in my 4th year at UBC studying English and Writing. I have an unusual amount of practical experience under my belt – one year as (volunteer) Assistant Director for an online magazine, one year as (volunteer) Director and Editor of the same online magazine, and a summer-long (unpaid) internship with one of the most prominent and oldest ad agencies in the world. I have been job searching for summer employment since February, trying to avoid the lure of relative and mouth-watering unpaid internships. Where these internships lack in money, they make up for often in prestige in place of work, hands-on experience in a field relative to my career aspirations, and a promised sparkler on my resume. So if these unpaid jobs sound so great, why I have a been dodging them for two months?

Like I said, I am in my 4th year. I have been working for free for two years and a summer in order to clear up my foggy future. These experiences have helped me – in all honesty they have guided me in figuring out what I want to do with my life. But there comes a time when a girl needs to make some money. Aside from some scholarships and birthday money, the last time I received a pay cheque was August 2011.

I want to buy a car. Then, I want to be able to pay for that car – insurance and gas. I want to keep saving for the day I’m going to travel. I want to be able to go out and get a hair cut, and not worry when I’m going to see that $50 again. I want to feel like I can move out in the next few years and not dry up my bank account in a couple of months of rent. I think these are reasonable things a 22-year-old could ask for.

It seems like unpaid internships are everywhere, and that causes a problematic precedent. A couple of decades ago, you could graduate high school and get an entry-level job. If you wanted to, you could get a university degree, graduate and get a decent paying career. Now a university degree acts more like a high school diploma. Do a quick job search and you’ll find that even historically entry-level jobs like an Office Assistant need a degree. Graduating with an arts degree now qualifies me to type emails, answer phones, and book keep. I’m so glad.

So when a portion of the young adult population agrees to work for free, at jobs that should be paid at least minimum wage and often much higher, it wreaks havoc with the job market. All of a sudden you need a Masters in Communications to run social media at a start-up marketing agency, making $20 an hour.

It also tells companies that it is okay to take advantage of young employees. In certain cases, I understand when a company offers an unpaid internship. Perhaps a small start-up, with only four employees, wants to open up an opportunity for a student to come and learn how a start-up runs, but they legitimately can’t afford to pay them. I am all for increasing opportunities for students to learn – especially when they don’t have to pay to take a course. But when it’s obvious the companies offering unpaid internships could afford to pay them, that’s when things get sucky.

In my job search this spring, I’ve come across a LONG list of major companies who offer unpaid internships. A small sample of this list includes Bell Media, Rogers, Hootsuite, Brian Jessel BMW, Deloitte, Lululemon, 6S Marketing, and virtually all ad agencies. Hootsuite is a company that has gained recent criticism for their unpaid internships, especially after they revealed their new offices to the media – offices that have a yoga studio, beer on tap, a gym and general luxury. You would think a business that could afford these perks could afford to pay their interns at least minimum wage.

I honestly had doubts about writing this post – I was worried a potential employer would Google me, read this, and assume I was an entitled student unwilling to pay my dues. Let me tell you that people who oppose unpaid internships are not entitled. Rather, employers should jump at the chance to hire someone who has enough dignity to stand up for unfair and illegal employment “standards”.

I could write several more pages on this topic, but you don’t want to hear me ramble on and on. Instead, fill in the gaps with your opinion.

Unpaid internships – yes or no?

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4 responses to “My Thoughts on Unpaid Internships. Agree or Disagree?

  1. Coming from an extremely poor family that somehow has made it through 3 people going to Uni in 10 years, I really hate unpaid internships. A big issue is that some companies will not even help pay for transportation costs. For example a big corporation (I will not name which one), makes you work for over 3 months before you get any transportation benefits. They also expect you to work full time hours. WHAT????

    I’d rather prefer they would say it’s volunteer work rather than an internship at that point.

    I empathize with those that have gone through unpaid internships. Especially those working in media. My friend was a journalist major, and then a publishing post-grad. She went through 5 internships (unpaid), which did not follow through with paying jobs. Her professor in her post-grad literally told her having a lot of unpaid internships actually looks worse than having 1 or 2…but she still had to go through with her 5th one to graduate (requirement).

    • I totally agree, and this is a point I didn’t get to in my post – unpaid internships just widen the gap between the haves and have nots.

      Obviously a good internship looks better on a resume than being a server at Cactus Club, but those who don’t have a back up supply of cash lying around just can’t feasibly work for free, especially full time hours. So those who are well off build a better resume and get the better jobs, leaving the people who actually need money behind. It’s a broken system.

    • I’ve also done an unpaid internship where the company would not pay for my bus pass to get to work because it was “against head office policy”. Therefore, I bucked up $120 a month for three months for a bus pass I would not have purchased without that job. So theoretically, I paid to have an internship.

  2. Jilly, I totally agree with this. I am also not opposed to unpaid internships, and have done one myself (which I immensely enjoyed), it’s frustrating when unpaid internships ask for full-time hours and require comparable pre-requisites and experience as an equivalent entry-level position that is paid.

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