You get what you pay for

Nickel-and-diming the next generation

Nickel-and-diming the next generation

Before I became a newspaperman, magazine writer, broadcaster and author, I was a copy boy for Canadian Press. It was my first, real summer job, and I hated every sweltering, miserable, fetid moment of it.

From the heartbreaking hours (6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays), to the foul-tempered, Pall Mall-puffing deskers, it was a guaranteed, weekly nightmare that poisoned, for me, all the other days in that school break of 1976.

My duties were simple for a baboon: I made coffee runs; filed the nightly clippings; ordered the weather map from the airport; and, most importantly, ensured that the office’s stash of porn magazines was organized and reliably available.

The only good thing about the whole, rotten gig was that I got paid. It was a pittance, of course. But there was never any doubt about the principle of workplace compensation.

Today, scores of young people across North America, performing far more complex and worthy tasks for corporations earning record profits, can no longer take that principle for granted. They call themselves “unpaid interns.” I call them slaves.

“Hold on,” you might say. “Slaves have no choice. These kids are free to come and go as they like.” The distinction, I would argue, is a poor excuse for treating the next generation of skilled workers as if they were scullery maids in the downstairs kitchen of an English manse, circa 1902.

Not very long ago, this sort of thing was illegal. But around the time of the Yuppie uprising, in the early 1980s, Wall Street and Bay Street fat cats realized that federal governments in the United States and Canada were no longer interested in workplace conditions to the degree they once were. Suddenly, it was open season on the young and largely powerless. From there, the doctrine of greed spread to virtually every sector of the continental economy.

Today, by some estimates, as many as 300,000 unpaid interns in this country are working without a net. South of the border, the number may be as high as half-a-million. We may never know the real tally because neither nation’s numbers-crunching agency keeps tabs on the practice.

Incredibly, corporations justify their usury by claiming that they’re providing a public service. They say they are making it possible for individuals, who would not otherwise have an opportunity to cut their teeth in the work world, to deepen their resumes. But, unless you happen to be a trust-fund baby, the only “deepening” you will be doing is to the well of student debt the private sector seems perfectly content to see you excavate.

Or, as federal Liberal MP Scott Brison wryly told the CBC recently, “Be born into a family rich enough to subsidize you to enable you to take an unpaid internship with a great organization and with great experience.”

Lurking beneath the quip is his more serious concern. According to the CBC piece, “He’s calling on the federal government to measure the scope of the unpaid workforce, identify acceptable unpaid work placements and legislate changes to protect an increasingly ‘vulnerable generation’.”

Naturally, that’s not going to happen within the current mandate in Ottawa. But I grant kudos to Mr. Brison for trying, even though the effort does not go nearly far enough.

The issue here is not only monetary; it’s moral. The more entrenched the unpaid internship becomes in the labour force, the less likely anyone will fight to have it expurgated from the web of social norms. It’s very existence justifies its perpetuation – just as did, at one time, the unequal status of women, child labour and slavery, itself.

Plenty of organizations (such as the one that owns the newspaper for which I write) still pay their interns. They understand that, in doing so, they are reinforcing the imperiled notion of the square deal between employer and employee. More than this, they simply reckon that it is the right thing to do.

There were many moments during the summer of 1976 when I seriously considered not showing up for work. Had I been an unpaid intern, I’m certain I would have played permanent hooky, and I would not have become the angry, opinionated (and, yes, award-winning) journalist you see before you.

Maybe, that would have been a good thing. But I prefer to think that it would have been a loss – if only to my growing sense of self-discipline and respect for the sometimes, unavoidably fetid world of work.


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