As Canadians wait for Trudeau to finally fulfill his campaign promise to crack down on unpaid internships with regulations to go with 2017 legislation, student activists in Quebec are addressing a gender disparity in paid student placements and internships. According to student activists Jeanne Bilodeau and Annabel Berthiaume, fields that traditionally have more women like social work, education or nursing, tend not to have paid internships or placements compared to traditionally male-dominated jobs like those in the STEM fields.
Many post-secondary programs now require a placement or internship as part of their requirements for graduation. Often those roles are unpaid or underpaid, putting students in a position where they are working precariously in entry-level roles that should be paid.
Bilodeau and Berthiaume, who both study in Montréal, (education at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and social work at McGill University, respectively) are both involved with the UQAM chapter of Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant or CUTE, which is a student movement in Quebec addressing unpaid student placements and internships.
Gender and unpaid internships
They link an increase in unpaid internships over the last decade to cuts in Quebec’s public sector. There are less protections and more precarious conditions for workers.
“What we say is that the state doesn’t want to pay for that work and uses unpaid work by interns to do the work that has been cut in the services sector,” explained Berthiaume to RankandFile.ca.
Their analysis demonstrates that because of this tendency for few or no paid placements and internships in fields with more women, women have less access to paid entry-level work, and are at a higher risk for the problems associated with precarious, underpaid or unpaid work.
“There’s practically no internships at all in in social work and teaching and nursing that are paid. It’s not that some of them are not paid. There’s no paid internships in those domains,” Berthiaume continues.
“We theorized it as a matter of equal pay basically because other interns in a traditionally male domain are being paid and have a worker status for what they’re doing.”
The problem here is two-fold. First, workers in precarious jobs are particularly vulnerable to workplace harassment or sexual assault because the have no power in the workplace and are either obligated or required to complete an internships for career advancement or in this case, graduation. In fields that have a higher number of women, this is compounded with the existing vulnerability to harassment and assault all women experience on a daily basis.
Second, is the devaluing of certain kinds of work, putting certain jobs at the bottom of the list when it comes to increasing or adding benefits, security and wages.
“It’s at the basis of the analysis of CUTE to say that internships that aren’t paid – the fact that it’s unpaid work – is because mainly these internships are in the domains that are mostly ‘feminine’,” says Bilodeau. “So child and elder care, education, nursing. All that stuff are female-dominated domains. It is work that has been historically and is still, devalued. It is still made invisible.”
Again, these compounded vulnerabilities put female students entering fields where women are already overrepresented in a position of heightened financial and professional vulnerability.
“This is work we ask women to do all he time,” Bilodeau continues. “We ask them to have compassion, we ask for selflessness in that work instead of asking normal demands as we ask of other workers. We’re trying to say that it’s still work, just like internships in male-dominated fields are [considered] work, and are paid.”
According to Berthiaume, this grooms students for continued mistreatment as workers in these fields. “It’s preparation for our exploitation when we will be working,” she says. “There’s a whole bunch of tasks that nurses and social workers and teachers are doing, there’s a lot of hours that they are doing that are not paid. And an internship is actually a preparation for all of that stress, all of that physical and mental abuse or tiredness. It’s like a preparation for the [work] and how it’s gonna be when you are in the labour market.”
Striking against unpaid internships
The tactic that student activists are employing along with demonstrations is striking, which includes not attending classes or internships.
“Our biggest strike last year was on March 8. So we used International Women’s Fay to visibilize this issue and the fact that we’re being unpaid and unrecognized and that means that we don’t have a worker status and that means we have no protection in our internships whatsoever – if we have problems of like sexual violence or sexual harassment. So we try really to visibilize the necessity for a salary and a worker status to have at least a minimal protection.”
Last winter a four-day strike resulted in those studying education being given funds during their final year placements. “We consider that not enough,” says Bethiaume. “It doesn’t cover all the students.” However the victory, Berthiaume says, encourages them to continue. “That actually gave us a little strength because it showed us that we could go further, and it gave us confidence actually.”
With the school year barely underway, a one-day strike has already been planned for this fall and some student associations in the movement have adopted a plan to go on strike during the winter semester.
They say that the reception from the student body has been positive so far. “The fact that it is work but that it is unpaid because we’re in ‘feminine fields’ is clear, and you just have to look around you [to see] that your friend that is studying in computer science or engineering, that he is paid when he goes to an internship and you’re not. So yes the response is very good and for the past year and a half the mobilization is growing stronger and there is clearly an interest to go on strike and demand more from the government in the year to come.”
Amongst the student movement, the addressing this focus in advocacy seems challenging, but not inconceivable. “It’s hard to say, but I haven’t felt a big resistance, maybe for what we call invisible work or unrecognized work, a lack of recognition of the importance of this struggle within the student movement, maybe that’s how I understand it from more traditional programs who are not recognizing the importance and the significance of this struggle.”
Bilodeau and Berthiaume articulated their approach in positioning their activism within the larger Canadian labour movement. As Bilodeau explains:
“I would say that it’s difficult to make students’ work recognized as work. But I think our role is also, as student activists, is to understand the unpaid internship and the exploitation of the work of women in relation to other feminist struggles and to not make it an independent problem or struggle and to listen how the work of women has been made invisible and to try to make a link with struggles of sex workers and migrant workers and to recognize that we are inspired by them. That’s also what the labour movement can learn from those struggles, from the struggles that those women that have been doing work that hasn’t been considered as work by the state or by the labour movement as well.”
“It’s all part actually of the whole struggle against unpaid and unrecognized invisible work,” concludes Berthiaume. “This is the student movement facet. We’re asking for a wage and status for all interns. We’re asking that all internships are paid and they include worker status, for [students in] all programs.”