Blog post

On interns and exploitation north of the 49th parallel

Chris Webb12 July 2011

It's rather common among Canadians to define themselves in the negative: not rude, not imperialist and, above all, not American. This despite the fact that Canada tends to hold the bully's coat on most imperial ventures, and sustain a free trade bloc that makes them economically co-dependent (with Canada being perhaps a little more needy). So it's been interesting to see how Ross Perlin's Intern Nation, which focuses on the US intern industry, has been received in the great white North. 

Let's start from the right with the National Post, that bastion of objectivity that was once nourished by former newspaper baron Conrad Black. The Post review finds some clear parallels between US and Canadian student interns:

A 2009 poll of graduating students by the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium found 55% had completed an internship, co-op program or other practical experience, up from 35% in 2000. The numbers are similar in the United States; the National Association of Colleges and Employers found 50% of graduating students had held internships in 2008.

The overwhelming tone of the article—National Post interns were not consulted on this I imagine—is "it sucks, but it's worth it." This battle-cry of the young precariat sounds the same both sides of the border. A reviewer in the Montreal Mirror sounds a more hopeful tone—but like a good, polite Canadian doesn't quite call for a general strike:

The internship explosion points to the increasing overall precariousness of the labour market, especially youth and contingent labour-temps, part-timers, freelancers, as well as seasonal and contract workers. Hopefully, with this excellent book, more attention will be paid to this nebulous and disturbing side of work, and its dubious role in undermining labour rights and perpetuating neoliberal economic policies.

Calgary's Fast Forward Weekly also opines the death of upward mobility in the workplace and, as they say, "The American (cough, Canadian) dream of climbing the ladder from the mailroom up is becoming just that: a dream." Once you inch your way out of the mailroom with an internship, however, research conducted by a University of Guelph sociology professor suggests that you'll make $8,000 more each year. Although...

As of 2009, a Canadian undergraduate degree has a price tag of about $80,000. That burden traditionally fell on families and individuals, but now, they're also tasked with the cost of buying work experience.

It's a buyers market, and interns, like most workers, have little say in the unfolding structure of this unpaid economy. According to Simon Fraser Communications Professor Edna Brophy:

You'll frequently hear employers suggest that a free internship is a choice that's made - it's not exploitation because someone walks freely into my office and asks for an internship. To an extent, they have a point... But when you have internships becoming necessary to access a job in the industry, then it becomes a lot less of a matter of choice and a lot more of a matter of necessity.

Canadian unpaid internships don't fall under any labour regulations and, similar to the US, don't include any worker's compensation or insurance coverage. Alberta, known for its boorish premiers, right wing politics and saturated oil wealth, amongst other things, recently launched a "Serving Communities Internship Program," which promises interns a measly $1000 on completion of their job. Without a hint of sarcasm, the program's tagline is:

How do you grow Alberta communities? That's easy. Simply add interns.

In its current Conservative embodiment, Canadian economic policy and politics is almost entirely in line with US interests--austerity and public sector reform amongst other foul deeds. In the world of workplace reform, its business elites share the same boardroom ideologies of lean production and temporary labour. The challenge then is for Canadian interns to break those stereotypes of politeness and give their bosses some lip. 

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