BC may have recently seen a rise in minimum wage, but from the “summer student” postings appearing in my employment feed it appears there are many Vancouver businesses who expect young people to work for little or no money at all.
Particularly prevelant in the Communications sector, a number of employers are attempting to lure young people to work for nothing for several months with the promise of potential future work. To whit: HootSuite, Habitat Enterprises, and Vision Investment Properties – which I assume are all financially solvent companies – are posting “internships” for $500 per month or less. Even worse? The hospitality sector – long a low-wage bastion – has decided that any wages are too much. Tempted by the possibility of free labour, the Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver has two unpaid “internships” currently posted – one in Reservations and one in Housekeeping.
Now, the last time I checked, even the toothless Employment Standards Act in BC makes this practice illegal. By definition in the Act, “An “internship” is on-the-job training offered by an employer to provide a person with practical experience…… If the duties performed by interns fall within the definition of “work” contained in the Act, the intern falls within the definition of “employee”, and the agency using the services of an intern falls within the definition of “employer”, internships will be considered “work” for the purposes of the Act.” Apprentices and those undergoing training for employment must also be paid at least minimum wage while completing their period of qualification. The intern, apprentic and trainee all differ from someone doing a practicum, which is work completed as part of a formal education program.
If you take a look at any of these job postings, it’s not hard to see that these companies are looking for interns to work at a quasi-professional, employee level. For example, Vision Investments is looking for a Creative Writer (copywriter from what I can tell) to perform the following:
- Conduct research to obtain factual information, utilizing sources such as: newspaper accounts and interviews;
- Review, submit for approval and revise written material to meet personal standards and satisfy needs of Vision Investment Properties;
- Select subjects or topics for writing projects based on personal interest and writing specialty or assignment from the team leader;
- Collaborate with other writers on specific projects;
- Confer with team leader to discuss development changes or revisions;
- Verify the factual content of written work;
- Conduct interviews with people either face to face, over the telephone or by email;
- Submit material for publication in the required and expected format;
- Rewrite and adapt material (and sometimes the work of others) for alternative formats;
- Produce web-based real estate e-books
- Exercise self-discipline and time-management;
- Encourage and act upon critical feedback in the most appropriate manner;
- Be prepared to rewrite and revise work (often several times) following feedback;
- Work with social media accounts to increase web presence;
- Find, pursue and maintain knowledge of the real estate market in North America.
A pretty hefty list of responsibilities for someone receiving only $125 per week, wouldn’t you say? I would suggest, looking at this list, it would be difficult for Vision Investments (whose mission btw – is to create wealth through real estate investment) to argue that this “intern” is not an employee under the law.
See, where the intern law gets sticky in BC is around the issue of whether the duties performed by the intern constitute “work” – but if you look at any of these positions, you have to ask – if this isn’t “work” then what is it? These ads don’t emphasize mentorship, a chance to learn from an industry leader or anything other than what qualifications and skills the “intern” must have, and what tasks they will be expected to complete in their summer position. They look and feel no different from any other employment-wanted ad. Except that they are labelled in a particular way (requiring the applicant to be a student), and offer no wages.
Now, I’m all for students getting a chance at some real-world work experience, and I certainly don’t expect employers to pay a professional salary for someone who hasn’t ever worked in the field. But there are excellent programs which facilitate this already – in the form of Co-operative Education. I participated in the SFU Co-operative Education program during my undergraduate degree (in Communications) which gave me:
- credit towards my degree,
- excellent work experience and make contacts in my field,
- a decent wage ($14 per hour which seemed like a lot at the time) to help fund my schooling,
- a permanent job in my field as a result of networking and experience.
As a working class student living on my own, working for free over a whole summer would have never been an affordable option – and that was back in the days when Vancouver was still affordable (and my rent was only $300 per month in a shared house). I can only believe that the only students taking these unpaid jobs are those who have no financial pressures at home. The worst part is, those students who take these internships (eagerly, if I am to understand correctly articles I have read) are really partnering with unethical companies to drag down wages and working conditions across the board in Vancouver. More downward wage pressure in one of the most expensive cities in North America? This is not the direction we want to be going.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who has noticed this particular trend in the last couple of years – as there a few decent articles out there which are worth a read for those of us concerned about this negative workplace trend. Personally, I’m going to start reading the employment listings a little more carefully in this run-up to summer. Not only am I going to start writing to the Employment Standards Branch, and my MLA, but I’ll be sure to stay away from any business exploiting young workers like this. (HootSuite, I’m looking at you – I will be moving my social media management away from your company at the earliest opportunity).
Check out these articles: