BUSINESS

Urban Planet's Ad For 'Student Volunteers' Raises Questions About High School Co-Ops

10/16/2014 08:36 EDT | Updated 10/16/2014 11:59 EDT
Handout

Help Wanted: responsibilities include selling, hanging and folding clothes.

The ad reads like a posting for the typical after-school mall gig. But the difference is this student won’t be paid.

A Kijiji job posting for “student volunteers” at the Urban Planet in Oshawa, Ont., posted Sept. 30, was removed Tuesday over what the company called mistaken wording, but not before the unpaid retail position sparked outrage online. The posting became a flashpoint for activists concerned about the growing number of unpaid internships in this country and what they call the exploitation of youth.

“Looking for student volunteers to work in a clothing store,” the ad reads.

“You will be learning to merchandise, customer service, mannequin displays, hang and fold clothing. This is a volunteer position for those looking to introduce themselves into the retail world or complete their community service hours for school.”

The company said Wednesday the posting was an error and was actually meant to find a student for a co-op placement.

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Still, it is unclear how the partnership passes muster with the province’s Ministry of Education as program rules prohibit students from working at part-time jobs or replacing paid employees. The department could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour said Wednesday it had received complaints about the posting and that it is reviewing the information to determine whether to take action against the company.

Some provinces, including Ontario — where so-called “work-integrated learning” has become commonplace over the past decade — have been cracking down on unpaid internships that are not part of a secondary or postsecondary school program.

Student groups and even some politicians are concerned that regulation and oversight are not keeping pace with the trend towards unpaid work and have been calling for changes to protect young people from unfair labour practices.

“That an employer thinks they can just post a job ad and avoid paying minimum wage, it’s frankly absurd, but it’s representative of a lot of people’s understanding of what the law is,” said Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association.

UPDATE, Oct. 16: The Durham District School Board confirmed to HuffPost Canada that it has placed several Oshawa co-op students with Urban Planet.

Retail cooperative placements are quite common, said Jill Frazer, co-operative education facilitator at the board. The experience has been valuable for students who have completed the placements so far, many of whom had expressed interest in retail or fashion but had no experience in the field, she added.

"Keep in mind that not all of our students will go on to college or university," Frazer said. "Many of our students will go into retail as their career path and its important to give them exposure to it."

The school board has been made aware of the problematic Urban Planet posting and Frazer said the working relationship with the company will "be reassessed."

"We'll be having a look at, as we always do, whether the placement will continue to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for our students."

An Urban Planet spokesperson said the company doesn’t use volunteers and all of its employees are paid.

“This policy has been clarified, in no uncertain terms, for the manager who made this unfortunate post in error, with the intent of finding co-op participants,” Jasna Brtan said in an email.

“As well, all of our managers will be receiving a reminder that co-op placements must be made through schools and agencies.”

Cooperative education programs are usually coordinated through specific schools. Ontario students earn one course credit for every 110 hours worked and are supposed to use the placement to “refine the knowledge and skills acquired in a related curriculum course,” according to the province’s Ministry of Education.

The cooperative education program is “designed to suit the student’s strengths, interests, and needs and to enhance the student’s preparation for the future.”

A sales associate who answered the phone at the Urban Planet store in Oshawa’s Five Points Mall said there is currently one high school student and one participant from the non-profit John Howard Society, which aims to reintegrate former prisoners into the workforce. She said the ad was removed after the company received a complaint letter.

“It was a big misunderstanding and actually it was supposed to be reworded but it was never reworded and it ended up getting forgotten about,” said the employee, who said she was told by her district manager not to disclose her name.

In Ontario, co-op placements are exempt from the Employment Standards Act provided the high school student is performing work under a work experience program authorized by the a school board.

Seaborn said the Canadian Intern Association had been contacted several times about the specific posting, adding that there is a trend among retail employers to use co-op students and unpaid interns to cut costs.

“Obviously there are misconceptions about what the laws are about internships and this is a very good example of those misconceptions,” Seaborn said.

“Although it’s legal, this is certainly not the type of internship that adds a lot of value for the student, it’s not a trend that I think we should be going [with] for high school students.”

Regulations surrounding student co-ops have been in the spotlight following a spate of student deaths in the past year.

Some estimates suggest there are as many as 300,000 young Canadians working as unpaid interns. However, a definitive figure is difficult to pin down as employers are not required to report their use of interns. The youth unemployment rate currently hovers at 13.5 per cent, nearly twice the national average.

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