(Vancouver Sun) Unpaid interns trade their time for valuable experience

Recent backlash against companies who use free workers has put a spotlight on the practice

By Randy Shore
As seen on VancouverSun.com

Britney Darmanin didn’t hesitate when a chance introduction led to an unpaid internship at Global News in Vancouver.

“As a student, throughout high school and university, it was always a given in my mind and in most of my peers’ minds that you would be working or interning for free,” Darmanin said. “When opportunities came along to gain experience without pay, I was totally fine with it.”

So, the opportunity to dip her foot into the waters of TV broadcasting was too good to pass up. She took the four-month placement and moved in with her parents to reduce her living costs.

“The value of the experience outweighed a minimum wage salary. I felt lucky to get it,” she said.

After moving back to Toronto, Darmanin worked a one-year, one-day-a-week unpaid internship at a Toronto radio station that morphed into a paid job after she graduated from media studies at Ryerson University.

Unpaid internships came under scrutiny several weeks ago when word spread over social media that Vancouver software firm HootSuite was not paying its interns.

Students and apprentices who are fulfilling the requirements of a qualification, diploma or degree are exempt from the B.C. Employment Standards Act and need not be paid. But informal unpaid interns are not exempted from the act. Anyone who performs tasks performed by paid employees is entitled to be paid at least minimum wage under the B.C. law.

According to the Act: “Time spent by an employee performing labour or service for an employer is time worked and time for which wages are payable.”

After a backlash in social media and mainstream media attention, HootSuite reviewed their program, found they were not in compliance with the Act and ended the practice.

“To completely remove outstanding doubt around this matter, we will immediately rectify the issue by offering full payment, including interest incurred, to unpaid interns who had roles within our company within the last six months that were not in accordance with the (Employment Standards Act of B.C.),” Hoot Suite CEO Ryan Holmes said in a statement.

Industries such as journalism, high-tech and even organic farming routinely offer unpaid internships. Young workers like Darmanin compete for the opportunity to work without pay just to gain experience that may further their career or lead to paid work in their chosen field.

Global’s parent company, Shaw Media, would not reveal how many interns work without pay at their properties and declined an interview request.

Vancouver radio station News1130 recently posted an ad seeking four broadcast journalism students for unpaid summer internships training as writers, web editors, traffic and news reporters and to perform those jobs. The students have the opportunity to write news stories and conduct interviews, according to the ad.

The students work part-time for three months.

“Internships and co-ops are common practice in the media industry,” said Patricia Trott, a spokeswoman for Rogers, the station’s parent company.

“It’s a very competitive business and people beginning a career in the field require practical experience and the ability to hit the ground running – with little time for on the job training.”

Rogers properties offer internships to post-secondary students and recent graduates, some informal and unpaid, some paid hourly or with an honorarium and some to fulfil academic program requirements, Trott said.

“We view interns as prospective employees and many finish their internships and accept a job with us,” she said. “We’ve hired about one-third of those who interned with us in the past year. Others go on to get jobs at other media companies.”

Trott said the company is reviewing its internship programs in light of HootSuite’s problems.

Journalism interns who work at The Vancouver Sun and The Province are paid union rates.

Many companies in the tech sector participate in co-op work programs organized by universities, including University of B.C. and Simon Fraser University, according to Bill Tam, CEO of the B.C. Technology Industry Association.

An unknown number of companies — like HootSuite — have informal internship programs that are not affiliated with an educational institution.

The association is in the process of drafting information for member companies explaining the requirements of the Employment Standards Act and the potential liability of having interns perform unpaid work, Tam said.

“My sense of the HootSuite situation is that they had good intentions, gone badly,” he said.

The technology industry association employs two paid interns.

While unpaid internships are believed to be common in the tech industry, not every company is comfortable with taking the risk that unpaid workers will seek compensation after the fact.

Game designer Electronic Arts runs internship programs at its Burnaby campus and studios across the United States, but their positions are all paid and include benefits, said EA spokesman Jeff Brown.

Tam says internships are a two-way street: students get to acquire skills and companies get to audition new talent.

“Young people need the opportunity to get those skills before they enter the workplace,” he said.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union has called on the Ontario government to crack down on unpaid internships calling the practice exploitation. In a letter to Ontario Labour Minister Yasir Navqi, the students claim there are up to 300,000 unpaid internships in Canada, an estimate by lawyer Andrew Langille, founder of the employment law website youthandwork.ca.

The publicity generated by the union’s demands brought to light other unpaid internships, including two in government.

Toronto Coun. Ana Bailao was last week forced to withdraw an offer to take on an unpaid intern to monitor social media and do other office work, which she justified as a way to save taxpayers’ money.

Laura Albanese, a member of Ontario’s legislature, recently advertised for an unpaid intern, but later said it was a mistake by an inexperienced staff member.

Letters to the editor and reader comments at newspapers and news websites across the country have blasted unpaid internships as exploitation of young workers.

Simon Fraser University’s career services adviser condemned unpaid internships as inherently elitist, arguing in a recent blog that only wealthy people can afford to take unpaid work. Less-affluent students are forced to take paid work outside their field of interest, while the rich are gaining an advantage in relevant experience, he wrote.

SFU does not allow unpaid interns to perform work normally done by unionized workers on campus, nor does the university allow for-profit organizations to post unpaid jobs for students in its recruitment centres, said Tim Rahilly, the associate vice-president, students.

“We won’t post anything that contravenes any labour standards,” he said. “We will post pure volunteer opportunities at non-profit organizations, through local volunteer bureaus.”

Earlier this year, a $10,000 mediated settlement paid to a couple who were interning at a Vancouver Island farm sent a chill through the organic farming community.

The couple sought back pay under the Employment Standards Act after their relationship with the farmers who hosted them soured.

Farmers told the The Sun they were discontinuing unpaid internships for aspiring organic farmers rather than face the possibility of a claim for back pay.

Farmers need to make sure they are not building their businesses on the back of unpaid workers, according to Jordan Marr. A farm that cannot turn a profit without unpaid labour may be guilty of exploitation, he said.

Marr works with soilapprenticeships.org to connect aspiring young farmers with work experiences at organic farms, one of several such matchmaking organizations active in Canada.

Back pay disputes are extremely rare, he said.

“The vast majority of these internships go really well and everyone leaves the experience really happy,” Marr said.

Heather Verdin interned with Urban Digs Farm last summer to gain “hands-on experience” that she wasn’t getting from her agriculture studies at the University of B.C. The farm operates on several pieces of property in Metro.

While Urban Digs has ended its internship program, Verdin said the benefits far outweighed the cost of a season’s wages.

“I had a really positive experience and I learned a lot,” said Verdin. “I learned more interning for a season than I have doing a lot of book work.”

Verdin is doing a paid work-study placement at UBC’s Land and Food Systems’ Orchard Garden this summer.

No one knows how many unpaid interns are working in B.C. because enforcement is complaints driven, according to the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training.

The Employment Standards Branch receives more than 6,000 complaints a year and about 28 per cent of them are from people seeking regular wages owed. It is not known how many of those complaints are from unpaid interns.

There is no definition of volunteer in the Act. That leaves a grey area for employers who take on unpaid workers. Whether a worker and her tasks qualify as an “employee” and “work” is resolved on a case-by-case basis.

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