Students in Québec were striking last week to demand that internships be paid. Do they have a point?

The issue is an emotional one. Some people swear by unpaid internships, especially those who have benefited from the arrangement. Others emphasise how equity issues are at stake when we assume students work for free.

For example, a Globe and Mail article from 2014 described the case of a recent graduate of a bachelor’s degree. He took an unpaid internship with a cash-strapped start-up to get much-needed work experience. He called it a defining point that got him on track.

The owner of the company said the company also benefited; it wouldn’t have been able to achieve as much if the employer had “hired some random person...found online.”

The company viewed the internship as a recruiting tool. People who benefit from unpaid internships see no problem with the arrangement.

Others feel just as strongly that internships be paid. Writing in 2016, Darren Walker, who was then-president of the Ford Foundation, noted that paid internships ensure equity of opportunity.

He was making the point that young people from financially comfortable homes can afford to intern for weeks or months because their parents can help subsidise the living expenses that a salary would cover. Students from less advantaged backgrounds cannot.

The striking students in Québec have mentioned they either have to forgo paid work or work extensive overtime during unpaid internships.

Do whatever is needed?

This emotional argument probably won’t answer the question of whether students have a right to be paid for internships. Rather, issues of definition, law and economic benefit will.

The first issue is the most basic: What is the purpose of an internship, and how does it differ from basic schooling? In an analysis of definitions, Concordia University PhD student Ingy Bakir and I found little agreement about internship responsibilities.

Points of variation include: Who is an intern (current students, graduates)? How long should the internship be (weeks, months)? What is the structure of the work experience: Are there clearly defined duties, or can interns be expected to do whatever is needed?

But the definitions, however, converge on one key point: Internships provide clinical or practical job experience and help people transfer their academic learning into real work environments. Internships are both work and learning experiences.

Although the law varies among jurisdictions, it offers a clearer, simpler definition. According to law firm Gowling WLG, most provincial labour codes consider interns to be employees if they perform work for the organisation; they receive direction from the organisation; and the employer benefits from that work.

The only exception is students who are performing their internships as part of an academic program. Most provincial labour codes, including Québec’s, include this exemption.

One could argue, then, that the law permits unpaid internships.

Agree to compensate

A second issue is whether all student work experiences are unpaid. Not even close. Financial compensation is central to co-operative education, another work-study arrangement.

Co-ops alternate study terms with work terms. During the work terms, they are placed in paid positions.

Many student interns are also compensated. The most popular component of the program in which I teach is an internship. Because the demand for our interns often outstrips supply, nearly all employers pay. And as happens in most competitive labour markets, employers who do not want to pay receive few or poor-quality applicants and eventually agree to compensate.

Who benefits?

The third issue is whether the employer is profiting from the intern’s labour. On an individual level, that depends on the effectiveness of the intern in the job. More broadly, however, the answer is yes or employers wouldn’t take on interns.

The primary argument against paying interns, however, is that employers incur corresponding expenses. Some employers argue that internships are a training expense and, as a result, they cannot afford both provide training and compensation. But that’s mostly an issue if the fit is not great and employers have to invest significantly in time-consuming supervision.

But that inability to afford both might simply be a choice. Conference Board of Canada figures suggest that Canadian employers are increasingly tight-fisted with training investments, reducing per-employee annual investments from a high of $1,116 in 1993 to just $889 in 2017.

Other employers view internships as a recruiting cost. After interviewing, they try out workers for a few weeks or months unpaid to see how they perform. But is it fair to expect a prospective employee to forgo weeks of paid work so the employer can reduce its recruiting and training expense? Could a prospective employee who already has a full-time job do the same?

In other words, the students have a point.

Certainly colleges and universities can prevent employers from posting unpaid internships on campus. But some professions require clinical education to earn a licence. Agreements between universities and other parties allow those internships to be unpaid. Changing that practice will be more challenging.

Besides, the core problem lies in a loophole in the labour code that permits unpaid internships for students while preventing them for others. Students are well-advised to set their sights on that target.

And legal or not, unpaid internships are likely to continue as long as people face barriers breaking into the workforce and some employers see the opportunity for free labour.

Saul Carliner, Professor of Education, Concordia University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.