Critical Approach: Slave of the system

by Michael Lyons

The reason I’m in the Masters of Journalism program at Ryerson is because of an unpaid internship.

Damn you, Scumbag Employer.

Damn you, Scumbag Employer.

I came out of an undergrad in theatre studies, my focus on playwriting, with a passion for the arts and writing, but disillusioned about the kind of nepotism and compromise I saw a career in theatre would take. I was working three part time jobs (retail, food service and customer service, the unholy-freaking-trinity) with a whole lot of student debt and very little creative fulfillment.

Then a saw an ad in, the now defunct, Fab Magazine: “Looking for kickass interns!” I sent in my resumé, and started at Fab shortly afterwards. As one of a half dozen interns I tackled a weekly slog of event listings with the promise that I would eventually be able to start (paid) writing for the magazine, which I eventually did. From this I built up a career as an arts and culture writer, blogger and columnist for Fab and its sister publication, Xtra. Now I’m back at school, inevitably accruing even more student debt, to ostensibly become a journalist.

I think there’s something to be said of Ira Basen’s “Age of the Algorithm” and the crackdown on internships in the Canadian magazine industry, which we touched on but didn’t get to flesh out in class. While I certainly wouldn’t defend not paying workers, I’m also troubled by the polarizing response.

Critics like Heather Mallick explain: “There may be as many as 300,000 unpaid interns working nationally right now. Youth unemployment is catastrophically high in Ontario, says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Doubtless, free labour has flourished as the result.” This suggest a cause and effect relationship: because youth unemployment is endemic, employers are going to take advantage of the young and unemployed.

Mallick feels it necessary to include the tantalizing tidbit that the “Toronto Star’s interns are paid, with benefits.” I would ask, how many applicants with the right skills do they have to turn away from their program every time they take on new paid interns?

Her argument is that getting paid at anything, even prostitution, is preferable to unpaid work. Her rallying cry that internships are slave labour is an economic one, without actually addressing that paid work can be complete bullshit, and that slavery can take many forms even where financial transactions happen.

Take, for instance, Basen’s work with eHow.com. In his work for the content farm he explains that he earned $5 for an article that took him two hours to write:

“I hadn’t worked so long to make that kind of money since I was a teenager. Although I’ve gotten faster over time, I would still have to churn out about eight or ten of them a day, every day of the week, to approximate the weekly wages of a supermarket cashier.”

I would take an unpaid internship doing the work I did with Fab Magazine over earning “about three cents a word” in a content farm any day. Similarly, I would rather write a free blog where I can prioritize creativity and champion the causes that I believe in instead of breaking my back and toadying in a corporate media environment where the only thing that’s valued is how much work I can churn out a day, benefits or no.

The countless demeaning, underappreciated, underpaid jobs that the creative, qualified, intelligent and passionate people of our society have to do amounts to little more than poverty driven indentured servitude. This is a systemic problem in a society that values money over fulfilling work; where governments find it easier to put a halt to unpaid internships without any conversation around why they happen in the first place; where Heather Mallick reaches out a helping hand from 25 stories up and tells the young and disenfranchised to jump for it without providing any kind of system where we can.

All I suggest is that we take a more tempered approach to youth (un)employment, and internships. If getting rid of unpaid internships is the Ministry of Labour’s first step towards providing magazines with a way of taking on paid interns, it’s a good one. However, I get the feeling it’s just the government’s usual approach of punishment over addressing systemic issues as a means of  combatting social injustices.

The biggest loss is to those who won’t be able to use unpaid internships as a in any more. I hope eHow is hiring.

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