Interns, too, deserve the comforts of everyday living

Unpaid internships at both Toronto Life and The Walrus were cut by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. [Photo credit: Covers from Toronto Life, The Walrus. Witty edits by Erica Lenti.]

[A] few weeks ago, Toronto Life Editor-in-Chief Sarah Fulford visited my Magazine Editing class at Ryerson. My peers admired the smart, savvy editorial genius who makes one of the city’s best-selling magazines sitting in front of us; so it came as no surprise when one of them raised their hand to inquire about what she looks for in interns—a possible foot in the door, an opportunity to impress the woman who had the power to turn one soul’s destiny for forever freelancing into career dynamite.

“Eager to learn,” “creative” and “curious” were among words she used to describe the ideal Toronto Life intern. These kids are hard working, willing to go the extra mile to impress.

But she did forget to mention that, oh, the interns aren’t paid.

The class went silent for a while, and when I realized no one was going to address the exploitative elephant in the room, I piped up.

“Sarah, why don’t you pay your interns?”

“Well,” she began, “We just can’t afford it.”

“Sarah, I apologize if this question is inappropriate, but, how much money do you make?”

“I’m not going to tell you, but I live comfortably,” she answered.

And then the conversation veered off, Fulford changing gears quite quickly into something about editorial content and as far away from internships as possible. I didn’t have the guts to ask her why interns didn’t deserve, too, to live comfortably.

But, I suppose, the Ontario Ministry of Labour asked that question on my behalf this week when they announced, just 15 days after I (unsuccessfully) tried to back Fulford into a corner, that Toronto Life’s internship program had officially been cut—and rightfully so.

Consider this: A full-time internship at the magazine over the summer—the equivalent of about 20 weeks of work—if paid at minimum wage would rake a total income of about $8,000, enough to cover basics like rent and groceries. Instead, interns are paid nothing, and don’t have enough hours in the week to work another part-time job in order to pay the bills.

Things were even worse at The Walrus—another publication at which internships were slashed this week—where unpaid interns worked 25 to 30 hours a week for six months, and were often told they would have too much responsibility to seek another part-time placement outside of the magazine.

Also among internships cut were those at Rogers-owned Flare and Chatelaine.

I wonder how the suits at these magazines ever slept at night knowing they were depriving young people of the bare necessities of life just to get much-needed job experience. It’s hardly a secret that young Canadians are swimming in debt, between student loans and a poor job market. To exploit them further is just plain cruel.

Still, those comfortable with their well-paying salaries at big-time media outlets hide behind their computer screens, crying that the Ministry has taken away valuable experience from those who could afford to work without pay for four to six months.

But is it fair that young, eager students or recent grads should have to be in a position of economic privilege in order to get job experience? Or is this just another case of the rich getting richer (upper-middle-class youth can take unpaid internships, get job experience and rise up to work great jobs while the rest of us sit around in entry-level positions)?

Or, rather, is it fair that class essentially trumps talent when it comes to unpaid internships?

We Canadian youth are smart, dedicated and trained to do work worth a paycheque; and anyone who disagrees probably doesn’t realize our potential. We’ve spent years in post-secondary institutions upping the ante, learning new technologies and preparing for a new workplace dynamic that will slowly but surely become the norm. Perhaps folks against the recent crackdown on internships are forgetting that we, soon, will be taking over their jobs, will be running the show; and with our training, may do it even better, more efficiently.

Perhaps they should, instead, be praising and rewarding us for our work—and there’s no better reward than feeling like a real employee with the ability to financially support yourself.

Someday, we too aspire to live as comfortably as the staff at Toronto Life. But we shouldn’t have to suffer—to potentially go hungry, or live without a roof over our heads—in order to earn the experience to get there.