unpaid-internshipsBy Jessica Galang

Image via Blogging 4 Jobs, appropriately.

The unpaid internship has <a” href=”http://www.rrj.ca/m6047/”>long been a point of contention, especially among journalists: do these internships provide eager, budding journalists with the opportunity to gain new skills and get their foot in the industry’s door, or is it akin to slave labour?

If the latter, who is to blame?

This question reached a head in recent weeks, with the Ontario Ministry of Labour <a ” href=”http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/03/27/ministry_of_labour_cracks_down_on_unpaid_internship_programs.html”>cracking down on illegal unpaid internships at The Walrus and Toronto Life. The CEO of St. Joseph Media, which publishes Toronto Life and Quill and Quire, hinted that other internship programs in the province would soon face the same scrutiny.

It’s important to understand why these internships cause so much backlash; it mostly comes down to the fact that the boundaries between legal and illegal unpaid internships are unclear. There are six criteria for a legal unpaid internship in Ontario according to the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s website, and they <a ” href=”http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/internships.php”>sound simple enough. But until this recent crackdown, there seemed to be little oversight from the province to ensure that interns don’t, for example, replace someone else’s job, effectively providing the employer with free labour. No one would know about such abuses unless an intern complained to the ministry.

While still exploitative, it’s somewhat understandable that smaller publications in an unstable industry are looking for any way possible to stay afloat; unpaid interns are tempting, and for a long time the province didn’t seem to mind. But some larger corporations take advantage of the seldom-enforced criteria; last year, <a ” href=”http://www.internassociation.ca/roots-canada-advertises-illegal-internship/”>Roots Canada and <a ” href=”http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bell-accused-of-breaking-labour-law-with-unpaid-interns-1.1356277″>Bell Media came under fire for apparently flouting the regulations.

While many are sympathetic to the broke intern’s plight, some say that the labour ministry is taking a simplistic view of a complex issue. As Alexandra Molotkow, a former Walrus intern and now senior editor atHazlitt, <a ” href=”http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/unpaid-internship-isnt-only-problem”>wrote in a recent piece, “The rule of thumb for any internship program should be: is this as good as, or better than, J-school?” Rather than looking strictly at the companies that provide them, Molotkow writes, the government should also consider financial supports for those who turn to unpaid internships for a leg up.

But she also acknowledges that when she did her unpaid internship, she had the rare opportunity to be immediately hired, and was supported by her parents. That’s a problem that many point to—the fact that it’s mostly rich kids who can entertain an unpaid internship creates what some have called a “media elite.” In an industry that thrives on presenting diversity—of people or of ideas—in its work, an unbalanced workforce that favours the privileged is dangerous.

The notion of the unpaid internship is not to blame; the problem is that the definition of the intern has changed. Now, interns are those so desperate for a stable 9-5 in a shitty economy that they will edit, fact-check and do work they know they should be paid for, just for a tiny chance that someday, hopefully, theywill be paid. And for that eventual paycheque, they might not report unfair labour practices. Hopefully, now that the labour ministry has done that for them, publishers will take a good, hard look at the ethics of their operations, and either provide truly valuable opportunities for their interns, or just start paying them.

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