Oh Canada, When Did We Start to Settle for Unpaid Work?

Nil Sendil is Atkinson’s first intern. She has a Masters degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto where she conducted research on online engagement strategies.

When Mum graduated from the Technical University of Istanbul three decades ago, she got hired on the spot. After years of living on a tight student budget, finally getting a taste of financial freedom must have been heavenly – think road trips with friends and starting to save up for a first house.

The events following my 15 seconds of fame at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall did not quite echo this story. First I took on several part-time gigs while I looked for work in my field, then I started stapling paper for a temp agency to pay rent and groceries.

Why did we experience such different transitions from university to the labour market? Was it merely our individual merits that determined our employability, or were there larger structural forces at play?

Realities of Youth Unemployment

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has shown that Ontario’s youth “suffer from unemployment levels that are twice as high as the overall provincial unemployment level”, with Toronto’s youth employment rate of 43.5% marking rock bottom. Following his year-long research as an Atkinson Public Policy Fellow, Neil Sandell has shed light on to the prevalence of precarious and unpaid work amongst youth. While many let their income expectations fall as low as their wallets can afford, the youth facing barriers, and/or ridden with student debt get an additional slap in the face.

Enforcing the Law on Unpaid Internships

The issue of unpaid internships returned after a crackdown by the Province of Ontario last month. Derek Finkle, the very first intern of Toronto Life, one of the magazines that was forced to shut down unpaid internship programs, has written a particularly sound commentary. Derek is concerned about the increasingly unequal distribution of incomes as a part of the problem, and he is not alone.

Mobilizing  Support for Paid Internships

GenSqueeze has focused on empowering younger generations to come together and voice their struggles with structural challenges such as stagnant incomes. Meanwhile MPP Jonah Schein has introduced a bill at Queen’s Park to get unpaid internships covered under the Employment Standards Act. The bill aims to provide interns, also the unpaid ones, with contracts and breaks, the standard for most of the workers in Ontario.

When Internships Become the Norm

In February, while I was about to take on yet another temp assignment, I got offered a paid internship at the Atkinson Foundation. From where I am standing, having a paid internship is a privilege and I am grateful. Nevertheless, I wonder when getting paid for work stopped being the norm. Karen Foster, a Banting post-doctoral fellow, calls for collective action to fix our labor market which is being “dismantled into a set of lower-wage, no-benefits, no-security jobs.”

If we only get what we expect, why set the bar at paid internships and settle for more precarious employment?