The real cost of unpaid internships

Growing concern as more students sacrifice pay for experience

Every year, thousands of students in Ontario trade in their sweatpants and backpacks for dress pants and briefcases as they transform into working interns. An increasing amount  of students are undertaking internships, often unpaid, to bolster their resumes and increase their chances of getting hired after graduation. 

Currently, these unpaid internships are being criticized in the media for exploiting young people for free labour and depressing the job market. Although there may be social consequences, many students feel there’s no other choice but to accept unpaid positions for experience. 

Even though this seems like the norm, unpaid internships for the most part aren’t legal in Ontario. 

In Ontario, if you perform work for another person or company, you’re considered an employee and are protected under the Employment Standards Act (2000), you’re guaranteed to be paid the minimum wage.

However, there are two exceptions to this rule, both referred to as an internship. 

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour website, one exception is if a worker is receiving training from an employer. However, there are restrictions that must be met for an employer to justify not paying an intern. Training must be educational, interns can’t be promised a job and they can’t be replacing an already-paid position. 

The second exception is that students are allowed to work without pay if the internship is run in co-ordinance with a college or university program. This exception is to provide students with work experience without burdening employers with inexperienced employees. 

Initially, for Queen’s alumni Charlotte Anderson, ArtSci ’14, taking an unpaid internship was a ticket to gaining experience. After moving to Los Angeles, Anderson was told if she wanted to find a job she would need to complete some sort of internship. 

Just like in Ontario, California law states that internships must be paid unless you’re a student. To apply for her position, Anderson registered as a student at LA City College in order to have documentation proving she was a student, but never took a class. In the end, she was hired as an unpaid production intern at a creative branding and advertising agency.

Her responsibilities ranged anywhere from being on set to cleaning up after her boss’ dogs. “The CEO of the company had two dogs and he’d bring them into the office everyday and the dogs weren’t toilet-trained and so they would [defecate] in the office everyday and I had to clean up the dog s***, if the dogs peed I had to clean that up,” she said. 

Although Anderson feels she didn’t learn anything from her internship, she credits having done one with landing her the job she has now. 

“The only reason it helped me is that when I went into the interview for the job I have now, they said ‘do you have any work experience?’ and I said ‘I just finished a three-month internship,’” she said. 

Reuby Staviss, ArtSci ’19, also believed her lack of experience to be a barrier to finding a meaningful summer job. Staviss worked at a food and beverage company as a marketing intern in New York. “They don’t really want to pay someone who has no experience, they don’t know what to expect. I probably would not have gotten the internship if it was paid.” 

Karina Esmail, ArtSci ’17, who completed an internship for the UN in Nairobi, is hoping her experience will lead to a full-time paid job next summer after she graduates. She worked at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the Maritime trafficking department. While Esmail benefitted enormously from the experience, she understands that many others don’t have the same opportunity. “I was really lucky my parents helped me out. It did cost a lot of money, with flights and everything, like $10,000.”

While many students at Queen’s are enthusiastic to gain experience through unpaid internships, Toronto-based labour lawyer Andrew Langille thinks this is largely a result of being privileged. He says that students whose parents can support them don’t feel the same financial burden as students who are paying their own way.

In an interview with The Journal, Dr. Robert Hickey from Queen’s Industrial Relations Department agreed with Langille. He said it’s a privilege to take on precarious work and that those who can’t afford to work for free are being excluded from the job pool. 

While many students believe job experience will increase their chances of getting hired, the increasing number of unpaid internships is crowding the job market. Hickey said that whenever there are people willing to accept unpaid internships or work without compensation, it results in a smaller number of entry opportunities for young workers. 

Even though students believe unpaid internships are a necessary evil that provide valuable job experience, Hickey argues that they can be considered a form of exploitation. 

“If you are not getting educational credit and you are just getting some promise of being able to put experience on your resume then that’s fundamentally exploitative.” 

Despite the fact that many people believe their unpaid experience helped them get jobs, Hickey warns against entering into these working relationships. 

“The signal that it provides on the resume is that if it’s an unpaid internship, that means that you aren’t adding value to the organization and the experience will be undermined as a result of that status.”

Unpaid internships have become a huge burden on young people, with Statistics Canada reporting the unemployment rate among 15-24 year-olds at a staggering 15.6 per cent. The unstable employment situation becomes even harder to bear for many when it’s factored in that student debt in Ontario sits among the highest in the country at an average of over $20,000. 

The increasing incidences of people willing to work for free is making it difficult for students who can’t afford to work for free to find paying work after graduation. 

According to Dr. Hickey, “if you are unable to volunteer, that’s going to crowd out the labour market and make it more difficult for other folks to gain those jobs and that experience.” As jobs become increasingly unavailable, many young people take on unpaid work to boost their resumes so as to become more competitive in the paying job market. 

As unpaid internships continue to rise in popularity, students and recent graduates alike will continue to both reap the rewards and pay the price of working without wages. 


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