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RU Tired of paying for unpaid work?

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By Fatima Syed

By the time fourth-year fashion design student Sydney Allen-Ash graduates, she will have completed 400 hours of unpaid internship work — a placement she found and applied to on her own and pays $700 for as a course requirement.

To compensate for the free time she spends at her placement, Allen-Ash does up to 25 hours of freelance and contract work each week as a necessity, in addition to classes. This is a schedule that’s all too familiar for many Ryerson students.

On Jan. 17, RSU vice-president education Cormac McGee launched a petition asking the Ontario government to recognize that organizations are benefiting from free labour instead of hiring paid workers. More than 500 people signed the online petition in the two days following its launch.

“It’s not just free work but you’re literally paying thousands of dollars in tuition to go and work for a company for free,” said McGee.

The Government of Ontario is developing a new funding formula to better distribute operating grants to universities. In a government report released in December 2015, it was recommended that funding should be used to improve student outcomes — in part by increasing experiential learning. McGee will be speaking with the lead policy advisor to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities on Jan. 25. They will be discussing a possible long-term investment through the new funding formula for unpaid internships that students do as a credit requirements.

Instead of asking companies to pay at the risk of positions being cut, the RSU is exploring other alternatives; including minimum wage pay, a travel allowance or getting rid of the course fee. “Some sort of investment would really help students … we have a huge contingent of people doing 40-hour-a-week internships for nothing and doing the same work people get paid to do,” said McGee. “We don’t want businesses to cut students, that’s why the money has to come from the province.”

For a lot of students, internship opportunities are the most practical experience they get during their four years at Ryerson. Of the nine undergraduate programs in the Faculty of Community Services, eight have unpaid internship requirements. Social work students have some of the highest demands, with 864 hours needed throughout third and fourth year. Alyson Rogers, a fourth-year social work student who will have completed the required hours by the end of the school year, says the demanding workload can be stressful for students — financially and mentally. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “We want the placements for the experience, but they are putting students in poverty.”

Almost all Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) programs offer an unpaid internship, but students studying fashion, creative industries, professional communication and interior design are required to do one to graduate.

“The upsetting part is unpaid internships are becoming a status quo in the culture of the industry,” said Allen-Ash. “FCAD is complacent in following unfair and exploitative industry standards, then making it out to seem like their hands are tied,” she later wrote via personal message.

FCAD Dean Charles Falzon said he thinks internships should be paid, but noted that the value of a good internship often “more than compensates for the absence of pay.” This includes encouraging a culture of mentorship among industry professionals who might not be able to pay, but are willing to provide students with practical experience in their profession.

“I think there’s this balance between the best learning possible, the best reputation possible and the best job opportunities possible,” said Falzon, who added he’s working to create more workplace opportunities for Ryerson students. “I understand the conundrum. But I just don’t think it’s black-and-white.”

Ryerson interim president Mohamed Lachemi says experiential learning is part of the curriculum for 95 per cent of programs at Ryerson. “Ryerson really gives a lot of importance to experiential learning for students,” he said. “Our position is always to encourage paid internships for students … however, the decision isn’t ours because the hiring is done by external agencies.”

While students are charged for unpaid internship courses, the school notes that time spent interning would amount to the same time spent in classes if these placements didn’t exist. These courses can cost anywhere from $700 to upwards of $1,500 dollars, depending on the program. Fees are used to pay faculty coordinators and other administrative staff.

Students in the faculty of community services have coordinators responsible for finding them a placement and making all of the arrangements. Most FCAD students, however, are in charge of finding their own internship.

Allen-Ash said she had little help from the school of fashion, aside from emails sent out with workplace opportunities accompanied by a disclaimer: “Jobs are not vetted or authorized as internships prior to posting.”

“All we can do is promote paid internships,” said Lachemi. “We cannot close the door for unpaid internships.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Alyson Rogers as having mental health issues. The Eyeopener regrets this error. 

With files from Nicole Schmidt 

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