Labour laws and internships

Even if work is in profound transformation, most of us still spend more or less 40 hours a week on work or studies. Employment often defines a person in a political, social (hierarchical) and economic way. Since we are spending a lot of time and effort on it, the work conditions and the work environment we live in have an important impact on our daily lives and on our relationship with work. Moreover, this relation to work is constantly evolving, but is always defined by the requirements of capitalism. We will first look at a brief history of Quebec’s working conditions. Then, we will make some assumptions about our gains and losses in labour rights.

A history of misery

During the preindustrial era, work was mainly concentrated in the primary sector, that is to say, devoted to the extraction of raw materials. The working day was aligned with the canonical hours sounded by the church bell and working periods were modulated by the seasons. Sometimes a busy period could be followed by a long period of unemployment. In sum, people worked fewer hours yearly, while working periods and hours were more irregular.

In the industrial era, though most people continued to work in the primary sector, more and more of them were integrating the secondary sector, transforming raw materials within factories. The conditions were inhuman. The vast majority of people worked in environments exposing them, too often and for countless hours, to dangerous substances that compromised their health and greatly reduced their life expectancy. Indeed, women, men and children worked between 10 and 14 hours, or even 16 hours a day in mines, factories, ports, shops and spinning mills. Work accidents were frequent and no measures were put in place to compensate injured or exhausted workers.

Although the idea of the 8-hour day had been put forward since 1817[1], it was only in the 20th century that this demand was enshrined by the law.

The working class waited until 1976 for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to come into force. This covenant is an integral part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and serves among other things as a basis for the legislative development of labour codes throughout the world.

In Quebec, the Labour Relations Act was adopted in 1944: at the time, it was important legislation on the right of association, since it established a monopoly of representation by accredited union associations. It also reinforced the obligation to negotiate in good faith collective agreements governing the working conditions between the two parties, the employer and the accredited union association. This Act was replaced by the Labour Code in 1964.

The Act Respecting Labour Standards was passed in 1979 and contained minimum required working conditions for all salaried workers. That said, the minimum wage that was provided did not always meet the basic needs, ie the minimum wage was insufficient to meet the cost of living, which is still the case today. In addition, the prescribed periods of rest were insufficient to allow workers to disconnect, to really rest and to fulfill all the obligations of everyday life. Basically, if we simply rely on the minimum required working conditions that the labour standards impose, we realize that employers are by and large allowed to exploit their workers.

Labour standards are tools that regulate the powers of employers, but are mainly tools that force workers to submit to precarious working conditions. All of this, of course, for the sake of mass production of products and services, in the public and communal as well as private sectors.

Obsolete standards

Despite many advances in labour rights and improved working conditions for some of us, capitalism gives shape to our way of life and our way of perceiving work. The current employment laws in Quebec certainly protect us; on the other hand, they also support a system that allows the exploitation of our labour force for the benefit of a minority of well-off individuals.

The development of the tertiary sector, ie services, has brought a lot of change, and for some time the world has even been talking about a quaternary sector of the labour market. However, we don’t seem yet to agree on what it is and on what it is composed of. Some suggest that the quaternary sector is the result of the cleavage of the tertiary sector. It would cut across development, research and consulting services for electronic, computer and communications products. We believe that the spill of the tertiary sector towards a quaternary sector will generate a modulation of the nature of work and its conditions. Indeed, jobs are increasingly atypical, such as self-employed workers, fixed-term jobs, shifts interspersed in the same day, precarious and gradually less unionized. The professional responsibilities weighing on the shoulders of employees, the competitiveness of the market and the precariousness of jobs, result in a professional exhaustion more often of emotional nature than physical. It should be noted that even after one year of service with a company, in Quebec, a worker can easily be dismissed, without much reason. The Act Respecting Labour Standards only provides the possibility of challenging a dismissal after two years of service within a company. As a result, people who are newly employed, people working on a fixed-term basis and those in a situation of self-employment are vulnerable. The laws in place protect us, but a fired person has to go through a long bureaucratic process, fill out several forms such as an application for unemployment or a request for help of last resort and compose several letters as a history of events and a complaint.

It’s a lot of mobilization for a person who is going through a crisis and who also has to find ways to survive.

In addition, the application of the standards set out in the Act Respecting Labour Standards is not uniform and many of the atypical forms of work are not covered, which is why a person with multiple jobs will not be able to rely on the 40 hour work week standard. In fact, the weekly schedules of these workers begins to look like those of their ancestors in 1908, reaching 58 hours to meet their basic needs.

It is high time that we rethink our conception of work. Laws that, instead of protecting us, allow more and more companies to exploit us must be reviewed. The gains in labour rights acquired during the twentieth century are not adapted to the constant changes in capitalism and its’ labour market. Wouldn’t the answer be elsewhere, in another way of thinking about the economy and work?

The right to exploitation

It is clear that the standards imposed are unrealistic when the schedules of students and interns are taken into consideration. Internships require a great deal of personal involvement from intern students. Internships and schools demand that they perform more and more tasks for more and more hours for little or no money. This imposes very high demands and unrealistic expectations on the abilities of student interns. We ask them to complete an internship, that is, to perform tasks for an employer and produce school work, all for 60 hours or more in a single week. And that’s not counting the hours spent on a side job in order to successfully pay bills. In this way, we accustom them to accept working a lot more than what they are paid for once they get into the job market.

Since the labour laws mostly guarantee the right to exploitation, the working conditions of interns don’t even reach these mediocre standards. All this, of course, isn’t surprising in a system where the ability to make profit and accumulate capital is based on the free work of billions of people. In this context, our training inevitably teaches us to accept all of this, or at least to get used to it. The global interns’ struggle would therefore benefit from acting in solidarity with all the struggles that aim to change or replace this system for the better.

Kim Chauvette and Claudia Thibault
Translation by Ronny Nou-Khlot

This article was published in the Winter 2018 issue of the english edition of CUTE Magazine.
To learn more about the struggle for the full recognition of student work, to discuss or contribute to it, we can contact us via the CUTE Campagne sur le travail étudiant page or the SWUC – Student Work Unitary Committee page.

  1. Robert Owen is generally credited with the formulation of the slogan “8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, 8 hours of sleep”, later taken up by the labour movement and the International Workers’ Association. ↩︎