Students and professors at the Ottawa-based college are tired of being asked for free work by national media outlets.

By Nicole McCormick

Andrea Emery, coordinator of Algonquin College’s graphic design program, was sent into a tailspin when a single email from a national media outlet showed up in her inbox a few weeks back that she would later describe as a landmine.

“I was livid when I got it,” she said.

The email was sent from a woman working for the CBC who was seeking some of her students to carry out unpaid graphic design and animation work for their radio show, Campus. More specifically, they wanted animation created for four to six-minute audio clips to be posted on their social media pages.

This kind of project for CBC would entail 10 to 20 hours of work and the going rate for a junior designer is $1,000 per minute of animation and Emery said it would be too much of a burden for students taking a full course load and working part-time jobs.

As shocking as this may seem, this is not an isolated case.

Nine program coordinators in the School of Media and Design have told the Times that they are solicited with requests for freelance labour from students on a daily basis.

“Every program gets this,” said Emery. “We get requests probably on a daily basis for free work. I’d say I get a request at least once a day.”

In Emery’s case, she resisted CBC’s request at first, but decided to share it with some students and grads prefaced with a with a warning in a private social media group after some urging on CBC’s end. She said that many students went ballistic after she shared the email and some even reached out to CBC to voice their objections.

CBC emailed Emery back following the backlash and told her that they had made a mistake and the animation clips would only need to be 30 seconds to a minute in length, but for for Emery and her students, this was not enough as it would still devalue their work.

When contacted for comment on the allegations, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson told J-Source in an email that “by way of background, this was a well intentioned ask to build partnerships with students but fully respecting the collective agreement that stipulates CBC cannot use interns to do unpaid work, we will not be pursuing this any further. The request was made in error and we have since called off any potential partnerships with student animators.”

Rick Bond, a former Algonquin graphic design student and professor turned small business owner, was one of many drawn into the conversation. He said said although the majority of businesses in the industry truly do understand the value of good work, there are a few he hasn’t worked with that don’t follow the same practice.

“I’m against it because it’s exploitive, where the company receives more value than the unpaid intern,” he said. “A small number of businesses I have heard of feel they are entitled to free work in exchange for experience and in my opinion this is damaging. It damages the intern’s self confidence, the morale of other employees, and the reputation of the business.”

It should be noted that provincial labour laws currently prohibit unpaid work unless the individual is performing work under a program approved by a college or university program or is receiving some form of training.

This type of unpaid internship is a requirement for most media and design programs and they provide students with valuable work experience.

In fact, many Algonquin students–mainly those in the journalism program–have good experiences with placements at CBC.

But the line is being drawn when it comes to unpaid freelancing, which is forcing students and educators to ask themselves: What is the value of a student’s hard work to employers and, comparatively, what is the exposure and unpaid work experience worth to students?

According to Karen Kavanagh, the coordinator of Algonquin’s advertising program, she deals with with this issue regularly as well.

“It generally starts with a huge email about what a great project it is, how beneficial it will be for the student, and then at the end it closes with ‘for free exposure.’ Translation: no pay,” she said.

“And our students work very hard in our programs… It’s a lot of extra hours. And they have the added stress of having to work part time jobs to pay for their tuition.”

And it’s not just design programs at the college.

It’s also happening to Colin Mills, coordinator of music industry arts which is one of the most expensive and intensive programs offered at Algonquin.

“I regularly receive requests like this and since our industry has been suffering with the perceived value of music steadily decreasing, I am strongly against anyone working for ‘exposure,’” he said in an email to the Times.

“I usually try and convince whoever is inquiring that a musician, sound engineer or student instructor has some value to them and that they deserve to be paid for their time. Very rarely the individual inquiring changes their mind and may offer up a (usually) small honorarium for the students’ service but most of the time the call ends fairly quickly.”

Despite the mostly negative feelings within the faculty, Jeremy Atherton, who is the TV broadcasting coordinator said his program has taken a slightly different stance on the subject. He said that they get many calls regarding unpaid projects, but they don’t automatically reject them. They take it case by case and see if the project would be a good fit for students.

“There are some good fits, so it’s not everyone is just just looking to exploit students. Some are really looking to partner with our program and are trying to develop an industry and skill set within the industry,” said Atherton.

“We have to caution and tell them…‘don’t let yourself get taken advantage of,’ because there’s a perception inside arts that you’ll just give it away for free for portfolio work and we try hard to turn that perception around, at least in the students’ minds.”

But even with coordinators looking out for their best interests and filtering these requests, many students are being solicited directly for work in exchange for exposure.

April Bennett, a second year graphic design student was forced to face it head on when she was contacted on Twitter by an individual who was impressed by her artistic talent and requested she draw something for them. The only catch was that no compensation would be given. She politely declined the request, but the individual pressed on and told her they were trying to help her grow her business and she should be thankful for the interest. When she politely declined the request a second time, the user became volatile, telling her she was “nasty and entitled” and that her work was not very good, along with a slew of profanities.

This angered Bennett so much that she decided to share screen grabs of her conversation with her 12,400 twitter followers, which earned her over 27,000 retweets and 54,000 favourites.

Unfortunately for Bennett, this was not the first time she had been asked to carry out work for free.

“I’ve actually been approached by video game developers before asking for me to do ‘spec work’ for them — drawing the character concept illustrations and developing an aesthetic for their game,” she said.

She adds that turning down these non-paying jobs is often met with harassment.

But unlike Bennett, many others are still lured into the trap and are met with unfortunate consequences.

Some advertising and animations students have indicated that many unpaid projects that bring students on board often fizzle out before completion. As a result, those involved are left with disappointment, wasted time and without anything to show for it in their portfolio.

One third year advertising student told the Times that he has experienced exactly this time and time again and has come to regret the decision.

“It hasn’t been worth it,” he said.

Nicole McCormick is the current Editor of the Algonquin Times. She will graduate from Algonquin College’s journalism program in the spring. A version of this story under the title “Putting a price on student work” first appeared in the Algonquin Times and is republished here with the author’s permission.