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Unpaid internships: a boon or a bane?

Preeteesh Peetabh Singh

Christopher Daniels knows about Internships.

Daniels is a Red Seal certified chef, worked as an intern in Toronto’s food industry and, at 41 years of age, is still unsettled in terms of his career.

Sometimes interns are paid. More often they work for free, hoping the internship will turn into a “real” job or at least give them work experience and a beefed-up resume.  But in an economy still trying to drag itself out of a recession, today’s university and college graduates have it tough.

“I was paid a minimum wage, less than the dishwashers, despite being educated in my field and having five years of directly related experience,” says Daniels. “It is not a proud moment when it comes to discuss one’s wage, after volunteering, educating myself, paying thousands to do so, then find out I am still working for minimum wage.”

Even so, according to research conducted by Agata Zeiba, an MA student at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, a staggering 59 per cent of internships in Canada remain unpaid.

Unpaid or not, these days rejecting an internship offer is not an option for most students. An estimated 86 per cent of graduates are willing to work for free. With high unemployment, it often seems the only gateway into the job market. To economists, the new world of internships, job casualization and unemployment are combining to create a new and worrisome feature of the modern job market — precariousness.

After the financial crisis of 2008, many companies viewed internships as a survival tactic which provided them free labour. It has now turned into a long-term business tactic, and it won’t be surprising if it becomes a permanent one.

Daniels, who dreamt of becoming a successful, high-quality chef in a French restaurant, says Canadian employers have gotten used to free labour and so has he.

Andrew Langille's Guide for Interns

  • Keep hard copies of all information, emails and documents relating to your internship. Include a copy of your initial application, job description and any feedback you receive.

  • Keep a daily log of the hours that you work, including start/end times, breaks and lunch. Document what duties you perform on an hourly basis.

  • Ask for any remuneration you do receive (such as an honorarium or travel expenses) to be in the form of a cheque or direct deposit. Keep copies of all cheques or transaction records.

  • Keep copies of the final work product or drafts of what work you are doing.

  • Ask in the initial interview if you have the potential to become an employee of the organization.

  • Get advice about your rights early in the internship from your provincial or territorial ministry of labour or an employment lawyer.

Andrew Langille specializes in employment, labour and human rights law

“Many leave empty-handed, unpaid: time wasted. Yes we gain experience, but we all still have to pay the bills,” he says. In a large city like Toronto, the competition is fierce and employers know this.

Despite the fact that internships seem to be the new normal for university and college graduates, there are few statistics that define just how widespread the practice is.

“We do not know what exactly is happening in the labour market,” says Toronto-based lawyer Andrew Langille. "Specific actions can be taken only when we have enough data on unpaid internships in the province or country. Surveys and research needs to be conducted on a large scale.”

Such studies might reveal what percentage of internships lead to paid employment and whether they translate into actual applicable work experience required by the employer for a desired position?

Unions have been talking about this issue for 15 years, but have reached no firm conclusions. Lise Lareau, vice-president of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), says it is tough to strike a balance in providing people with internship opportunities and at the same time not abusing them by not paying.

“Unions, in general, do not support unpaid internships,” says Carmel Smyth, CMG's national president. “We help in sponsoring, raising awareness, speaking publicly, educating people and pushing the government to do something about it. We are very committed to work on the social justice front, but if you talk about individual workplaces, we cannot do anything with companies that are … non-unionized.”

Internships and precarious employment are prominent in cultural sectors, too. In many ways, that is how it's always been for artists, writers, actors, musicians or photographers, most of whom do not get a chance to work full time.

Even full-time work is no guarantee life will be easier. They are seasonal or temporary workers with few benefits, lack of collective representation, little or no job security.

Bryn McAuley, actor and ACTRA member for 17 years, describes how her annual income swings anywhere from $8,000 to $48,000 due to the precarious nature of her work. The voiceover artist often has to work in a restaurant to make ends meet.

For Christopher Daniels, internships turned out to be an unsatisfactory pursuit. He’s come back to school to retrain and look for a second career in finance.

“It’s time to work towards a future that will allow me to support a family. I do not see things changing rapidly and I think that people will have to prepare for a long battle with poverty, before making it to the big leagues. It’s my belief that we need to constantly adapt and evolve, the world is constantly changing. By staying current and even creating a market for a service or product that exists or we create, we will have a future and we will make it ourselves.”

(CWA Canada paid for the rights to publish this article. It also appears on and the Canadian Media Guild website,

Preeteesh Peetabh Singh is studying finance at George Brown College in Toronto. He works part-time as a reporter for the college newspaper, The Dialog, and has a keen interest in photography. He can be reached by email at .

Former CBC journalist Bill Gllespie served as an adviser to Preeteesh on this assignment. He was paired with the student under the CUP-CWA Canada Mentorship Program. For more information, contact the Program Co-ordinator, Katherine Lapointe, at 416-795-8598 or by email to: .