Opinion: Crackdown on unpaid internships a positive step, but the collective struggle must continue

By Katherine Lapointe, for Storyboard.ca

By Katherine Lapointe, for Storyboard.ca

This week, the Ontario Ministry of Labour told The Walrus and Toronto Life to bring their internship programs into compliance with the Employment Standards Act (ESA). Both publications had a long history of offering full time, months-long, unpaid internships for contributing to the main work of the publication. Instead of apologizing and figuring out how to give these young and/or emerging media workers the pay they deserve, both publications have chosen to shut down their internship programs and terminate their interns.

In Ontario, anyone performing work for a business or organization is considered a worker by the Ministry of Labour and is therefore protected by the ESA. However, if an internship is part of an approved college or university program, or if it meets six criteria that indicate that the intern, and not the employer, is benefiting from this experience, the internship relationship is exempt from the ESA.  Unless an internship fits into these two narrow exemptions, the “intern” is actually an “employee or “worker” and is entitled to all the legal protections outlined in the ESA – including minimum wage, safe and healthy working conditions, overtime pay, holidays, and EI contributions.

The rules around internships vs employees are not new in Ontario, but it is a welcome, if not long overdue, turn of events that the Ministry of Labour is finally conducting a proactive enforcement blitz to bring employers that use internships in line with the law.

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Unpaid positions are a pervasive racket in the media sector, much of which enjoys publically funded government subsidies in the form of grants and tax credits. A quick look through most job search sites or journalism school job boards will reveal multiple listings for what used to be entry-level jobs, now re-branded as internships where the intern is supposed to be grateful to have their labour exploited, while publishers and broadcasters hold onto their profits in full contravention of the ESA and other laws that are meant to protect workers and afford them even a minimal living.

Hopefully this is a wake-up call to many other media organizations, especially those who are turning a hefty profit (TC Media and Rogers both come to mind): all of your workers are entitled to fair employment standards, even if they are young or relatively new to this field of work.

Unpaid entry-level work is having a devastating impact on workers, on the accessibility of media jobs, and on the range and diversity of voices in the sector. Students from less privileged backgrounds who cannot afford the financial insecurity of unpaid internships are increasingly unable to even consider a career in journalism.  If we allow this trend of unpaid entry-level work to continue, this profession will revert to its exclusive past, impacting the diversity of both the people and the ideas that shape the stories told by the media.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour ‘s actions this week underscore the utter exploitation of junior media workers in that province, and they verify that movement on this fundamental issue can only come through collective pressure. CWA Canada associate members are joining this growing movement against unpaid internships in Canada and have been developing strategies to address unpaid internships and the barriers to entry in our profession.  We believe that unpaid work is ethically wrong and that workplaces have an obligation to create fair entry-level positions for young and emerging media workers. Too many workplaces have come to expect emerging media workers of all ages to have multiple degrees, to come fully trained, and to demonstrate unpaid “experience” as proof. This system categorically fails the next generation of media workers and betrays the public role of media in our society.

We ask that you stand in solidarity with us, lend a hand of support, and join our struggle for fair, safe, paid and accessible opportunities in the media sector.

If you are an intern or know one who is not being paid or is otherwise mistreated in the workplace, we encourage you to get in contact with us.

Katherine Lapointe is the CWA Canada associate member organizerHer column was originally published for Storyboard.ca and reprinted here with Storyboard's permission. 




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