This text was initially published in L'Invisible, a publication by the newspaper committee of the Montreal Coalition for Paid Internships.
The campaign for paid internships raises many issues related to training, work and how paid internships would be funded. Here are some common questions and how we respond to them:
If internships are unpaid, surely it is because there isn’t any money for them: perhaps they’re in unprofitable fields, or maybe they aren’t useful to society.
It can be tempting to believe that if things are the way they are, there is a good reason behind it. Unfortunately, wages are not determined by some natural law or by economic necessity, but instead are the result of unequal social relations. Unpaid internships exist because we have not yet fought against this growing form of exploitation endorsed by the State.
The majority of internships are in the care sector, which is the most important expense of the provincial government. In the same way that doctors receive pay during their internships while nurses don’t, it is clearly an ideological decision - this is why the public sector has unpaid internships, while the government offers tax credits for private sector internships.
Who will pay for this? It's not as if private companies can afford to pay all their interns.
It is more useful to frame this question from a different perspective: why should for-profit companies benefit from free work? If they do not want to pay for some workers’ salaries, then they do not deserve those workers. If they want workers to enter the labour market with hands-on experience, somebody has to pay for it - why should it be the students? After all, before internships became so widespread, private companies had to pay for their employees' training.
It is also worth mentioning that several thousand internships are currently paid in the private sector. Employers bear the majority of the costs associated with them. The work done by interns must therefore have some value in their eyes! It should also be noted, however, that a part of the costs related to the hiring of interns (salaries, supervision) is covered by the State. For example, approximately $50 million dollars are allocated to businesses in the form of tax credits to subsidize paid internships in the private sector.
Austerity is expensive for everyone: cutting back on essential services such as education or health care means depriving ourselves of the wealth that could be produced by people who are otherwise forced to work for low pay, or go on sick leave so they can wait in an emergency room for days at a time. A university graduate will pay several times for the value of their training in the form of taxes, not to mention the non-monetary benefits of quality education.
Can the State afford to pay its interns?
It's a fact, the economy is doing well for businesses and for the government. The unemployment rate is historically low, and the Liberals spent their last year in power bragging about the State’s fiscal health. In June, the government announced a surplus of $2.4 billion for the current year. Two-point four billion! That’s a lot of room to manœuvre!
The remuneration of interns is not just a question of means, it is a question of equity. Currently, the State pays full salaries to interns in public service and Crown corporations, while subsidizing private sector internships. Meanwhile, thousands of internships are unpaid in psychoeducation, nursing or social work. By paying interns in these sectors, the government would show that it values the professions of the education, health and social services sectors... and the women who work there!
What about the community sector? You can’t expect those organizations to pay their interns.
The community sector is underfunded, we are fully aware of this. But if the State can afford to subsidize private sector internships and remunerate public service interns, it can certainly find the funds to provide decent working conditions for the interns of non-profit organizations. The community sector fulfills a critical role in society that deserves to be recognized. For this reason, community sector internships should be entirely funded by the State!
Why should students be paid during their training? Isn’t an internship more of a learning experience?
An intern does not simply learn, but learns by doing. What better way to learn a profession than to do the work it implies? In many cases, unpaid interns perform the same tasks as salaried employees. And if interns don’t truly contribute to the organization that employs them, then perhaps it would be better to question why their internship exists at all.
Even at Tim Hortons, employee training is remunerated. Furthermore, companies must train their employees throughout their employment contract, just like they have to “invest” considerable amounts into training their new employees. According to the law, a company that reaches a total payroll of $2M must even devote 1% of its revenue to training its staff. As an example, consider pedagogical days, during which teachers develop their skills and knowledge to stay up-to-date so they can do the best job they can. Being paid to learn is already the norm!
I believe the students training for media or cultural sector jobs should not expect to be paid - that’s how it works in those industries!
Once again, this begs the question: are things the way they are because they are desirable or inevitable, or because we’ve inherited historically constituted social inequalities? Unpaid internships in the fields of culture and media are just one aspect of a structural problem that goes far beyond the question of internships. The way things are today, you have to be willing to make huge sacrifices to pursue a career in these fields, which excludes people from disadvantaged backgrounds. A first step to overcome this form of economic discrimination would be to fight for paid internships.
Why not a form of compensation instead?
To receive compensation, you must be “compensated” for something: it is often said that internships prevent students from spending more time doing salaried work, and that this is a sufficient reason to grant them compensation. We reject this perspective because the remuneration of internships is not limited to a question of money. By demanding the status of employee, students want the work done during their training to be recognized at its fair value: at the very least, this means receiving the minimum wage, and not a compensation which often amounts to less than 10$ an hour, such as the one proposed to education students by the Liberal government in March of last year.
This demand, however, goes beyond the financial aspect: the status of employee would also allow interns to benefit from the basic protections defined by the Act respecting labour standards. Interns would, for example, be entitled to compensation in the event of an accident, to additional remedies in the event of harassment, as well as to the reimbursement of their travel expenses.
I think it would be better to advocate for free education.
Without a doubt, free education would be beneficial to the entire student population. We are not opposed to this demand, on the contrary! These are two distinct but non-exclusive issues: while free education aims to increase the accessibility of higher education, the remuneration of internships would put an end to the unpaid labour provided by students during their internships. What do these two demands have in common? They directly oppose the inequalities reproduced by the education system!
Where does the struggle for paid internships come from? Is this new?
In Quebec, paid internships have been claimed for many years in the fields of psychology and education. A movement demanding the improvement of the working conditions of all interns was established in 2016. Our province, however, is several years behind countries like France, Italy or Austria, where groups defending the interests of interns came into being in the mid-2000s. The Global Intern Coalition, which emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, today claims the affiliation of 18 organizations from 13 countries. The movement for paid internships is not unique to Quebec, but has existed for many years internationally.
If women want to earn as much as men, why don’t they study in well-paid fields?
Instead of telling women to submit to the market’s demands in their struggle against sexism, it is necessary to have a more nuanced analysis on the reasons behind the gendered division of labour, as well as its relationship with the public sector. Alas, this article does not intend to fully explore this vast and complex subject, but we can nevertheless affirm the following: for one, no matter where they are working, the labour of women deserves fair pay; for two, regardless of the gender of those who work in health, education or any other traditionally female field, they deserve a living wage for their work.
The devaluation of these sectors does not benefit anyone: consider the recruiting difficulties in the nursing sector, as well as their miserable working conditions. The question we should ask is: who cares for those who care for us? The labour of care is necessary, but not the suffering that comes with it. No one deserves this misery: exploitation is not a vocation!