The last couple months have been stressful as I've been trying to decide my plans for the summer. Up until about a week ago, my two options were working as an unpaid intern for a magazine in Toronto, or making money back at home in a job unrelated to my career goals. This choice became much easier when the Ontario government cracked down on almost all of the internship programs I'd been considering.
If you read Andrew Coyne's National Postarticle "Government crackdown on unpaid internships hurts interns the most" you'd probably think that I'm upset. I'm not upset. In fact, I've realized that Coyne's article gets the issue almost entirely wrong.
Coyne's first mistake is claiming what is best for unpaid interns. This is ironic because he criticizes others for doing the same thing. Coyne states that, "No one asked [unpaid interns] how they felt about it. However eager others may be to assert on their behalf that they are being exploited, the interns themselves appear to believe otherwise."Coyne is not an unpaid intern, and I doubt he has ever been one. His article also fails to cite any interaction with unpaid interns. So, I wonder, where is Coyne getting this idea? How does he know what unpaid interns "really" think?
The answer seems to be his ideological delusion where unpaid internships are a gift from the neoliberal heavens. Coyne claims that unpaid internships allow people to break into the job market by gaining "experience... credentials... and contacts." He attacks the fact that they're called unpaid internships as he claims "they pay in experience." His proof for all of this is that, "The programs are always oversubscribed, to the tune of 10 applications for every one accepted."
Coyne's perception of unpaid internships is wrong for three main reasons. First, it mostly ignores how inaccessible unpaid internships are (besides a few words shoved in at the end of the article). Experience can't pay for your food or rent, and many potential interns cannot afford these necessities without being paid. So, if the benefits Coyne describes do exist, only the financially well-off get to access them. This perpetuates the cycle of the best-off getting the highest paying jobs. In this case, the internships are so inaccessible that they are literally illegal, but Coyne says this law "is an ass," so who cares about that, right?
Second, Coyne portrays unpaid internships as solely benefitting interns. Some interns may benefit from their experiences, but the companies recruiting them will always benefit from the free labour they'd otherwise pay someone for. Unpaid internships are a blatant example of capitalist exploitation. They are not acts of charity. If the companies who run unpaid internship programs really cared about helping out future journalists, they'd pay them. Instead, the companies targeted by the government chose to shut down the programs. As Coyne rightfully, but obliviously, points out, this is because "they won't [pay interns], and you can't make them." Coyne makes this point even clearer when he claims that these companies offer unpaid internships because "people will take them" and not because the companies "are hard up for cash," which is the excuse nearly all of these companies give for their illegal job postings.
Finally, Coyne portrays the large response to unpaid internship postings as arising from some sort of value the internships hold. As I've claimed, some may have value, but this is not why they are in demand. Instead, it is because the journalism industry has maliciously made these internships a standard for admission. Coyne is right when he says, "No one puts a gun to the head of the people ... who take these positions." But does the strong-arming really need to be that blatant?
The industry undeniably preys on those who are desperate for a way in, and capitalizes on their insecurity with unpaid internships. But the demand doesn't justify the exploitation. The fact that it's a standard practice doesn't mean people have to accept it. Future journalists can, and should, fight back against this standard. This is why I am genuinely pleased by the government's crackdown. It will not solve all of the problems facing prospective journalists like myself, but it is a great way to eliminate one.
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