Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Working for free: Is Unpaid Work the New Norm?

In Canada, there are around 300,000 unpaid interns working for various companies. And unsurprisingly most of them are young women. The promise of "experience" is what brings young people toward this type of work, but it also in some cases is required by universities as part of a program. Some interns work almost full time for free, which means that those who can afford to work for free get a leg up on those who can't, reinforcing the class structure and hurting social mobility.

Increasingly in today's economy everything from small businesses to mega corporations are pleading poverty. They say that they simply cannot afford to pay to train people, so if workers want to get the "experience" that is required to get a paid job, they must work for free. It seems that the social contract upon which we once relied can no longer be counted on. The idea that a worker has value has disintegrated to the point where companies now expect workers to pay them to work for their company. It is capitalism gone amok, and the ones suffering most are young people, and most specifically young women.

At the same time the cost of living is soaring, and getting a job that will pay the rent is becoming increasingly difficult.  And the government is largely silent on the issue, except for giving some opportunities in fields dominated by men. Are young people now to expect not to have a job that pays until they are 30? What will this mean for the older generation who rely on their children for financial and emotional support when they now have to house their adult children as they work for free?

What is the value of our work? Are we to believe that jobs that once were paid are now not worth anything? Why are companies that make huge yearly profits pleading poverty when it comes to paying their workers? This is the fundamental problem. If we are to create a society that is innovative and at the top of the field in areas of science, technology, health, and research we have to encourage our youth. We have to give them the opportunities that previous generations once expected.

We have to insist that companies invest in their workers if they want skilled personnel. Why should the government, or the workers themselves have to pay for training in addition to the massive tax breaks that are already given to companies?

Internships used to be about gaining specific skills in anticipation of a position in that company or in the field, but now they have turned into a back door way for companies to exploit free labor. These young people are doing entry level jobs and not being paid. They are doing secretarial work and not being paid. Many of them are not even getting the "experience" they were promised. Instead they are shuffling papers for a paid worker while learning little.

Is this the future we want? Allowing business interest to take precedence over the well being of young people is unconscionable. We cannot turn our backs on our young people. It's high time we end this exploitation and now. Nobody's labor is worthless.

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