Canadian politics: addicted to unpaid work?

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Participation Tuesday, August 05, 2014 View Count = 1672

Canadian politics: addicted to unpaid work?

Today's blog is written by Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer. 

One of the most controversial subjects that I cover on my website, Youth and Work, is the use of unpaid internships by politicians. Over the four years since I started the website I have uncovered politicians at all levels and in every party using unpaid interns, often illegally and in contravention of labour laws. I penned this piece to shed some light on the matter, address some of the unintended consequences, and offer some solutions.

To begin, let me unequivocally state that I’m not against volunteering in the context of political campaigns. Getting involved in an election campaign is a great way to meet like-minded individuals, develop new skills, and contribute to civic life. There is, however, a fine line between door knocking for a candidate and asking people to work for free doing day-to-day political and constituency work. I have close friends and family who have worked for the three major parties and everyone confirms a trend towards politicians routinely asking young people to undertake more and more unpaid labour. Simply put, working for free for prolonged periods has largely become a rite of passage for anyone interested in a career as a political staffer.

 

But why is this happening? I have a few explanations. The first is rather obvious: as our society has become more complex, politicians have had more demands foist upon them—but resources remain scarce. Office budgets simply haven’t kept up with the needs arising from constituents and bringing on some free help is an attractive option. Second, politics is a prestige industry and there’s an endless supply of wealthy, bright-eyed graduates lining up for a limited pool of opportunities to put political experience on their résumés. This is a simple supply and demand issue. Third, for the better part of the past three decades a growing ambivalence towards the rights of workers has led some politicians (along with employers in a number of industries) to feel that they’re above the law when it comes to paying interns. 

Now here’s the danger in relying on vast amounts of unpaid labour: it’s addictive. Take Washington for example, where tens of thousands of unpaid interns literally keep three branches of government functioning. At a deeper level there are threats arising from an over-reliance on unpaid interns and paid staffers coming from homogeneous backgrounds (i.e. white, university educated, upper-middle class). My greatest fear is that politics in Canada is cutting itself off from the input of historically marginalized groups at a time when inequalities are becoming more pronounced. What we’re seeing currently is youths from marginalized communities (i.e. racialized, lower socio-economic, or immigrant) facing structural barriers to political involvement—a glass ceiling that prevents them from full participation in key societal institutions. In a sense, unpaid internships are an exclusionary cultural practice that feeds alienation by denying people access to levers of power through which change can be effected. 

The foregoing is a stark assessment of unpaid internships in politics and I would be remiss if I didn’t advance some solutions. First, budgets for staff need to be increased to meet the realities of our increasingly complex political system and society. Politicians need to be adequately resourced to do their jobs and having enough paid staff is key. Second, paid internship programs like the Ontario Legislature Internship Programme and the Parliamentary Internship Programme need to be expanded into a recruitment tool for the civil service and employment equity policies instituted to attract interns from historically marginalized communities. Third, politicians need to adhere to labour laws and compensate young people working for them with a living wage.

The incentives to hiring unpaid interns in the political world are quite clear, but so are its risks. Let’s follow through on the above prescriptions and get on the job of making participation in our democracy more accessible for everyone.

 Andrew Langille is a Toronto based labour lawyer. His graduate research at Osgoode Hall Law School focused on the legal regulation of the school-to-labour market transition. He writes about youth labour market issues on his website, YouthandWork.ca. Follow Andrew on twitter @youthandwork.


(Photo credit, top: Corn on the job)

 

 

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