By David Dias
Mary Phronimadis is willing to work for free.
She wants to teach children, and she knows that in the competitive field of education, no employer is going to her her without job experience.
“They won’t even consider you if you don’t have experience,” she says.
So Phronimadis has been volunteering in classrooms for the past three years. For her, volunteering wasn’t an option, it was a necessity. The who ice was either work for free now, or never work at all.
Phronimadis’ predicament is a familiar one, especially to students trying to crack the job market for the first time. In competitive fields such as health care, social work, education, the media and arts, students desperately need an edge. More often than ever, they are getting that edge by working for free.
According to Volunteer Ontario, between 1994 and 1996 the number of volunteers in Ontario doubled, from 10-15 per cent, to fully one quarter of all people under 24 years of age. Although there hasn’t been a nationwide survey on volunteers since 1987, Volunteer Canada estimates that unpaid work has become a $13-billion industry.
The trend towards using young volunteers reflects a labour market in which employers have the upper hand and young people are in a vulnerable position. So long as students feel that working for free is the only way to get job experiences, they will do it — whether they think it is reasonable or not.
Legally, the only distinction made between a volunteer and employee is that of wages. Because volunteers do not make a wage, they are not technically “employed” and cannot be protected under Employment Standard laws.
Ironically, in Ontario it is illegal to profit from workers making less than minimum wage, but it is not illegal to profit from workers making no wages.
Phronimadis is in the general arts program at York University, but she hopes to get into the education program. In Grades 12 and 13, she did co-ops, where she worked in elementary schools starting in her first year of university.
Phronimadis says that she feels the pressure to volunteer. She has worked without pay, on average, nin hours a week for the past three school years.
She says that students who volunteer at schools are sometimes exploited.
“I’ve heard of so many situations where kids are taken advantage of, given all the dirty work to do.”
Phronimadis says that the labour market discriminates against those students who cannot afford to volunteer because they are too busy paying bills. “I know a lot of girls who wanted to get into [the education program], but they just didn’t have the experience, so they said, ‘There’s no point.’”
This year, Phronimadis says that the school work was made it impossible to volunteer. “Perhaps it has hindered my chances for getting a job,” she says.
Gillian Symington can sympathize. She is in the journalism program at Ryerson, where faculty issued a statement last year saying the school disagrees with unpaid work. But Symington, who volunteered for CITY-TV for nearly a year, says that won’t stop her.
Symington says that she got her volunteer position while trying to find a “real” job. She was told there were none, but was asked to be put on a volunteer list. Two months later, CITY-TV called, She volunteered until the end of the summer, before returning to school.
She hesitates to say whether she feels she was being exploited. She is fearful of losing favour among the employers at CITV-TV. “I guess they are kind of exploiting me, because Moses Znaimer has a lot of money, and he could get people to do this and pay them.”
According to Jennifer Styga, the woman who recruited Symington, many volunteers get noticed. “I can give you so many names of people who worked here, starting as volunteers, who got jobs immediately. The success rate is really quite outstanding.”
Styga is the assistant to the hospitality department manager at CITY-TV. She says she has been on both sides of the fence, as a struggling graduate and, now, as a recruiter. “I would have a hard time, after going through what I did, exploiting people that way,” she says.
After graduating, Styga worked for more than six months at a small recording studio, where she was paid next to nothing. “One week he would pay me $50. The next month he would pay me $500. The man owes me $10,000.”
A government subsidy paid 60 per cent of her wages, money she never received. “The cheque would come to him and he would tell me that it never arrived and that he doesn’t have any money to pay me,” she says.
“The desire to be in the industry kept me there. I was just out of college, quite naive as most are. I didn’t know what this guy was like.”
Bill Howes is the Executive Assistant of the Labour Council of (formerly) Metropolitan Toronto. He believes that the desire to be in the industry is making it possible for employers to exploit young volunteers. He calls it a subtle form of coercion, in which students feel they have to work for free.
“It’s unethical, and it’s immoral to take advantage of students in that way. It’s a pathetic condemnation of the capitalist system,” he says.
Howes asserts that employers have a social responsibility to pay for the labour they get. He argues that if a profit is being made, it ought to be shared with whoever helps to produce it.
“[The Labour Council doesn’t] believe in unpaid work. It’s a form of exploitation, frankly.”
There is no legislation to protect students from this type of exploitation, Howes says. “Volunteer work wouldn’t fall into that legal definitions of an employee. It’s an ethical question as far as I’m concerned.”
Francie Maroosis is the assistant co-ordinator for cooperative education at Oakwood Collegiate, a west-end Toronto high school. She helps place 135 students in co-op programs around the city, where students earn credits while gaining job experience. She sympathizes with the position students are in.
“It’s a buyer’s market. I think that is sucks that the private sector knows that kids feel trapped,” she says. “And I think that the people who take advantage of that situation are reprehensible.”
Maroosis adds, however, that students aren’t the only ones being exploited.
Just as employers are using students, students are also using employers. In many cases, students are using the experience they gain to get a job somewhere else. In an employer/volunteer relationship, there are no contracts. The volunteer may stop working whenever she wishes.
“Whether or not you feel that you were used and thrown away, as a student, you have the right to put that down on your resume, and say, ‘Been there, done that, got the T-shirt,’” said Maroosis.
Aino Lokk is an employment counsellor at Ryerson’s Career Centre. She says that volunteering is a great way to get practical work experience, skills, and the opportunity to work, but she says students must be cautious when searching for a volunteer position.
In the past, companies understood that volunteers should not be doing work that is normally paid for, but those protocols have eroded, says Lokk. “Maybe it’s time to pull out the old protocols and look to see if they still make sense in 1998.”
Although Lokk concedes that volunteering is beneficial, she believes that it is not an absolutely necessary element on a resume. There are other ways of getting a job, she says. “Volunteering isn’t the be-all and end-all. Nobody’s putting a gun to their heads.”
No guns, but no one’s offering any options either, not even Lokk. Not everyone can rely on being scouted by a head-hunter or get a helping hand from nepotism.
Unfortunately for students like Phronimadis and Symington, volunteering is the only option. Experience is a valuable commodity, and there doesn’t seem to be any other way to get it. So they have decided to work for free, putting money in the pockets of those who hold up that ever more bleak possibility of a paying job. For them, the choice is simple: get in line and pay your dues, or get out and pray for the best.