A group of Canadian PR professionals is calling for an end to unpaid internships, saying they are exploitive, create barriers to entry for students who want an education but can’t afford it, and unfairly hurt students from racialized communities.
In an open letter posted to LinkedIn this week, the group says that employers tend to rationalize unpaid internships as “doing a favour” for students, who in Ontario typically require 420 internship hours—the equivalent of 14 weeks of full-time work—in order to graduate.
“But it is a regrettable decision to decide not to pay young people for their work,” the letter states (full text below). “It goes against basic workplace practices. In what other instance do we hold people accountable for their workplace performance without providing any monetary compensation?”
The group is being led by Bruce MacLellan, CEO of Toronto PR agency Proof Strategies and chair of the pubic advisory committee for the Bachelor of Public Relations program at Toronto’s Humber College. “It’s a sense of fairness,” said MacLellan. “Exploitation of labour is not supposed to happen anymore. It’s a fundamental sense of fairness for me. I can’t imagine the idea of telling a young person you want them to do work for you, and not pay them.”
The letter includes 11 other signatories: Bianca Boyd, chief operating officer of Edelman Canada; Ted Bravakis, CEO of bravacomm; Sarah Crabbe, president of Agnostic; Richard Ellis, CEO of Ellis Strategy Group; Terry Flynn, associate professor at McMaster University; Michelle Lomack of Rogers Communications; Rob Manne, founder of Inflectiv; Maxine McDonald, director of Media Profile; Patricia Pytel, manager Metrolinx; Sarah Stewart-Browne, president of North Strategic; and Eileen Tobey, president, Bespeak Communications.
Speaking with The Message this week, MacLellan said that while unpaid internships are generally exploitative, it is also “very clear” that they disproportionately impact racialized communities.
“This is an issue of social equity in general, but it’s also an issue of equity for Black or Indigenous populations, who already face many barriers,” he said. “When kids are faced with economic hardship and have to drop out, it’s disproportionately high among Black or people of colour students.”
The group is targeting PR agencies and their clients with the letter. MacLellan said that student testimonials indicate that the practice of unpaid internships is fairly common among agencies. “As an agency founder, I’m horrified that some of my peer companies are doing this,” he said.
The client outreach, meanwhile, is designed to get clients to put pressure on agency partners by asking if they use unpaid labour to do work on their behalf. “This is supply chain equity,” said MacLellan. “You need to know how things are made [and] how people are treated. The sustainability of your supply chain should include treating people with respect.”
MacLellan describes it as a “pincer movement” designed to appeal to the ethics of agencies and get clients to apply pressure on agency partners.
Unpaid internships in PR don’t exist in either the U.S. or the U.K., he said. “So why on earth do they exist in Canada?”
However, MacLellan also said he’s heartened by growing support to eliminate the practice here. Last year, for example, the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society voted to approve a motion to support the Humber PAC to eliminate unpaid internships by December of this year. The CPRS also plans to issue a statement condemning the practice.
And the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms—which boasts more than 20 member agencies—has made offering paid internships a condition of membership since 2015, an effort originally spearheaded by a group led by MacLellan. “There’s lots of good firms doing the right thing,” said MacLellan. “Unfortunately there’s way more than 20 agencies in Canada.”
The cost of the four-year Bachelor of Public Relations program at Humber College is about $7,000 a year, said MacLellan, putting additional financial strain on students and their families. “If you can’t earn money, you may not be able to stay in school,” he said.
We write today to bring forward a matter of vital importance to the equity and fairness of the public relations profession—the immediate need to end the practice of unpaid internships in the public relations industry.
Since October 2019, the Public Advisory Committee (PAC) of the Humber College Bachelor of Public Relations program has called for an end to unpaid internships by December 2021. As members of this PAC, we send this letter to enlist your support and take action against this practice. We are in contact with other schools and know we are not alone in our position.
Like many professions, internships are an essential part of public relations education, and many employers in our field have supported them for decades. In Ontario, students typically require 420 internship hours to graduate – the equivalent of 14 weeks of full-time work.
But not paying interns is exploitive. We know the practice creates barriers to entry for students who want an education but cannot afford it. And the practice unfairly hurts students from racialized communities. Recent events have highlighted systemic racism faced by Canadian members of BIPOC communities, and not paying interns is a prime example.
Unfortunately, while unpaid work is generally illegal, most provinces allow it if the internship is tied to a college or university program. The rationale is usually along the lines that employers are “doing students a favour” by providing them experience or helping them meet their graduation requirements. But it is a regrettable decision to decide not to pay young people for their work. It goes against basic workplace practices. In what other instance do we hold people accountable for their workplace performance without providing any monetary compensation?
By comparison, Canada lags the U.S. and U.K. in offering unpaid internships. But there is a growing awareness in the Canadian public relations sector that not paying interns is unfair, and there are promising signs of change:
- The Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms has made offering paid internships a condition of membership since 2015, enshrining the practice in its code of ethics.
- On July 29, 2020, the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) Board voted to approve a motion to support the Humber PAC position to eliminate unpaid internships in the Canadian public relations industry by December 2021. This year, CPRS plans to issue a statement condemning the practice.
- On September 8, 2020, a Humber College student joined with our Committee chair to publish a column in The Globe and Mail that outlined the unfairness of unpaid internships
- In March 2021, the National Summit on Anti-Racism in PR & Communications Management saw more than 600 concerned practitioners in attendance. Many agencies and organizations created and have started implementing their plans to attract and support BIPOC public relations practitioners.
While these are all promising steps in the right direction, we know that a concerted, industry-wide effort is required to make a lasting and meaningful change over the long term.
We appeal to you as business leaders, fellow practitioners and educators and ask you to join the growing number of voices in our profession calling for an end to unpaid internships by the close of 2021. This pledge includes committing to paying PR interns an hourly wage that meets or exceeds minimum wage or an equivalent honorarium.
For organizations hiring public relations agencies, we ask that you screen agencies and consider partnering with firms only if they pay interns. Use your influence for good.
The pandemic is a challenging time to be in business. Many of us are experiencing financial pressures. Students are even more affected, as their sources of income have dropped substantially or evaporated. Many students rely on loans, bursaries and food banks to get by. An unpaid internship on top of these financial pressures is a burden many of them cannot bear.
We can and must do better for our future practitioners and leaders.