Media union sets precedent that could limit unpaid internships and provide student interns with ongoing workplace protections across the media industry.

By Errol Salamon, Work and Labour Editor

CWA Canada’s National Representative Council unanimously adopted Canada’s first guidelines on educational media internships at the union’s annual meeting in Calgary from April 29-30 to establish fair standards across the media industry.

The CWA Canada Associate Members Steering Committee wrote the 15 internship guidelines. The union’s list of priorities includes guaranteed minimum honoraria and structured training programs to ensure student interns get valuable work experience and get paid.

Emerging media workers are increasingly expected to complete internships, which are often unpaid and unstructured, as part of postsecondary programs in order to give them a competitive edge in the job market.

These internships may appear to be unfair, as student interns are often required to work full time without pay and temporarily replace permanent employees who are on vacation. That arrangement might be fine for students who can afford to intern in exchange for academic course credits and wait to eventually secure paid and stable employment. But many young interns can’t pay their bills or tuition without at least some compensation.

These standards must change. And they will if other unions, media firms, journalism schools and policymakers follow CWA Canada’s lead. CWA Canada’s internship guidelines could strengthen interns’ rights and better prepare aspiring media workers for future jobs.

The Steering Committee’s aim in creating the guidelines was to set fair workplace standards for student internships at the companies where the union represents media workers. CWA Canada, the country’s only all-media union, represents around 6,000 workers at CBC, VICE, The Canadian Press and various Canadian newspapers.

The guidelines are based on what the Steering Committee considers best practices from the union’s existing collective agreements. In drafting these guidelines, the Steering Committee acknowledged the key role internships play in training emerging media workers.

As interns through accredited post-secondary institutions are generally not legally considered workers under provincial or federal employment standards legislation, unions have a key role to play in establishing standards that support the next generation of media workers. CWA Canada has recognized this important role by classifying interns as workers who should be paid and treated fairly.

CWA Canada’s internship guidelines couldn’t be timelier. The federal Liberal government faced a backlash earlier this year over proposed legislation that would allow federally regulated workplaces such as CBC and Bell to hire interns to work unpaid for up to four months full-time or up to one year part-time.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour also just completed public consultations on the changing nature of the workplace. The Ministry appointed special advisors to review how the Labour Relations Act and Employment Standards Act could be revised to best protect workers. The interim report was released on July 27.

Regardless if the federal or Ontario governments follow CWA Canada’s guidelines, they could ensure that revised legislation better protects workers from unpaid internships. Ontario cracked down on unpaid internships in 2014 at Chatelaine, Flare and Toronto Life.

CWA Canada wants companies to pay interns because it believes unpaid internships lower working standards and drive down pay rates across the media industry if companies can increasingly rely on unpaid interns. While unpaid internships are considered legal if students receive academic credit for doing them, students must still pay tuition to intern for free.

According to one of CWA Canada’s internship guidelines, “Interns should be compensated with at minimum an honorarium equivalent to 50% of the entry-level rate.” The union’s recommended pay rate is a clear acknowledgement that internships are simultaneously work and an educational experience.

CWA Canada also wants internship programs to have a formal structure. Under the internship guidelines, the union would introduce a standard contract that establishes the terms of a particular internship, including the duration, hours of work and scheduling. Interns would also be assigned a mentor, who would give them daily guidance and feedback.

Another guideline stipulates, “Internships should be not less than two weeks and should not exceed six weeks. If the internship exceeds six weeks, the intern should be reclassified as an employee at the starting rate.”

This guideline is key to ensuring that student interns get sufficient experience at one workplace. Interns would then be able to complete at least a small project or two rather than merely fill in for a staffer for a few days over a long weekend or holiday. Additionally, employers wouldn’t be able to take advantage of interns by treating them as full-time permanent employees but not compensating them fairly.

An additional guideline would give interns protection against discrimination:

“Interns should be treated with respect and protected from discrimination on grounds of age, race, place of origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and family and marital status.”

The provincial and federal human rights codes give interns this protection, but the above guideline would allow the union to file a grievance against a company if workplace discrimination occurs. The grievance process gives interns collective representation and could be quicker than the application process at human rights tribunals.

While the internship guidelines aren’t binding, they’re intended to aid union representatives during collective bargaining negotiations. And it’s important these guidelines aren’t binding because they give union locals more flexibility and autonomy to address their members’ unique concerns.

However, union locals might face ongoing challenges to successfully incorporate language from the guidelines and ensure companies don’t suspend internship programs altogether.

That’s what happened at the Victoria Times-Colonist. The Victoria Vancouver Island Newspaper Guild (CWA Canada Local 30223) established a paid internship program at the Times-Colonist in 2002, but the paper stopped hiring interns in 2014 due to declining revenues.

Yet internships could ultimately benefit not only workers and the union but also media companies. Employers could get valuable opportunities to identify well-trained candidates for future employment.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, the CWA Canada Associate Members Program will develop a campaign with journalism schools to determine how internships can meet these guidelines. This campaign is a key step to building bridges between interns, unions, media firms, journalism schools and policymakers.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct release date for the Ontario government’s interim report. We apologize for the error.