Letter to the Editor: Unpaid Internships

Let me first start off by saying that I like the OPENWIDE.  Whether online or on paper, I like its stated goal, I appreciate the graphics, I Like it on Facebook, and, occasionally, I even read the articles.  I like that it’s a scrappy little publication beholden to no one, and that is opens a(n admittedly-small but) crucial space on campus for the ephemeral ‘alternative’ voice of students. In fact, it is precisely because I like the OPENWIDE that I am going to take the remainder of this piece to criticize it.

The article “FIMS in the Field,” in its current form, not only represents a failure of the OPENWIDE to live up to its stated mission, but also actively disservices the entire the FIMS undergraduate student body.  Without any disrespect meant to the authors, the article is an ideological menace.

For those unfamiliar, “FIMS in the Field” is a full-page spread in which three different FIMS students write about their respective unpaid internships, all of them drawing positive conclusions from them.  On the next page, we have a map of the city; the article has finished.

Now, just to be clear here: this is not meant as an attack on any of the authors, their experiences, or their conclusions.  On the contrary, it sounds to me like they all enjoyed what they did, and for those three individuals I am glad.  At its core, mine is not a critique leveled at individual cases; I’m aiming quite a bit higher than that.  The problem is that the OPENWIDE doesn’t.

The problem is that the OPENWIDE–by presenting this article this way–references an arguably oppressive culture without calling into question that oppression.

At this point, I would hope that we’re all familiar with unpaid internships, so I shan’t go into much detail.  The basic premise is that when there are a lot of recent graduates looking for jobs in a specific field, experience is commonly seen to set one above the rest.  Thus, working (temporarily) without pay has become a common way to gain that experience.

Those who support the practice say that many internships do provide rich and meaningful experiences, and that if those who offer them would be required to pay their interns, many potentially-rewarding experiences would simply be lost.  Others see market logic at work: where there is an abundance of labour and a scarcity of employment, the price of said labour necessarily drops.

Arguments against abound as well, and many of them bear consideration.  Essentially, it has been observed that requiring an unpaid probationary period privileges those of higher socioeconomic backgrounds, that youth who earn less earlier in their careers statistically earn less over the rest of their lives, and–it must be obvious to anyone–if a generation is burdened with debt and poor job prospects, the solution is not unpaid work.

All things considered, it seems like to me that neither side is wrong (although, one, arguably, is less right).  Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories from friends about good, meaningful internships–the same ones written about in the OPENWIDE–but I’ve also heard about the bad, insipid ones.  While it is undoubtedly true that some unpaid internships exist to enrich young people, the ones that concern me are those that are simply taking advantage of very cheap labour.  It is no secret that these types of internships exist and there is no question that they shouldn’t.

I am not categorically against unpaid work–indeed, it is government-sanctioned–but it is clear that the freedom to interpret the conditions set out by the Ontario government combined with their lax (slash nonexistent) reinforcement of these conditions has allowed a culture to develop in which opportunistic companies routinely take advantage of young people to the point where in certain fields one is expected to do free, often tedious labour as a rite of passage.  It is abjectly false that work experience needs be unpaid.  After all, paying jobs are work experience.  The culture of unpaid internships is, by and large, not one of enrichment but one of necessity.

So, while unpaid internships certainly have a place, until they are reliably tracked and regulated by a legitimate government body, then I cannot but disparage the phenomenon.

But it’s not just me with a bone to pick.  The surfeit of unpaid internships and their negative societal implications has recently become a focus in Canada.  Stories damning the practice have appeared across the Canadian media spectrum–even the most cursory Google search reveals scores of examples.  Closer to home, the Gazette has recently written two very good articles–one of them a feature–in which they explain and then examine the troublesome implications of this issue, which is precisely what the article in the OPENWIDE does not.

In fact, FIMS Internship coordinator Susan Weekes is actually quoted in the Gazette, saying that “It’s a sad reality for students in this business that the culture is such that they don’t get paid.”  However, as FIMS students, we learn that culture is never independent of human agency.  Although often pervasive and seemingly ‘natural’, culture is fundamentally a construct, and, when deemed to be unfair, it must be challenged lest it ever that way remains.

For the OPENWIDE to publish such an uncritical piece of writing on an issue which is presently swirling in controversy is baffling to me.  Indeed, in this very same issue, Jordan Pearson, current FIMSSC President, typifies the OPENWIDE as “a publication with freedom and dissent in its blood,” lauding it for producing the kinds of “dangerous ideas” that bring about change.

We have long passed the point where an brazen article condemning the practice unpaid internships would be considered courageous–indeed, they have become positively fashionable.  Instead, by publishing a piece in which unpaid internships are taken as a matter of course, the OPENWIDE normalizes a problematic cultural trend which increasingly takes advantage of young and vulnerable undergraduates–the very people that the OPENWIDE is supposed to represent.  I was much dismayed at this editorial oversight, and I hope that, in the future, it does not happen again.


Paul Craig is an intern in the interim who as he grows what he codes sees his prose decompose. Four more courses and he’s finally finished with FIMS.

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