By Justin Ling
As freelancing and unpaid internships become the norm in today’s bleak media landscape, Andrew Cash has a tiny ray of light. In October, the NDP MP for Davenport tabled a private member’s bill in the House of Commons that calls on the government to establish a legal framework for the labour laws that govern what has become the new normal in the Canadian job market: precarious employment. Cash calls his proposal the Urban Workers Strategy.
His plan is to get a Parliamentary committee working on a framework that could afford some security for those who willfully or otherwise find themselves in precarious employment situations. His strategy aims to help a range of “urban” workers: from taxi drivers to freelance writers to underemployed shift workers juggling multiple jobs.
Cash knows the issue of precarious work well. The political neophyte spent decades in the Toronto music scene as a singer-songwriter, playing solo and with punk band L’Étranger and also worked as a freelance journalist for Toronto’s NOW Magazine. Cash knows what it’s like to work with no promise of a pension or medical benefits, and the uncertainty of when the next paycheque will arrive or of how much it will be for.
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A first step in Cash’s Urban Worker Strategy would be to create strong, national legislation that can tackle unpaid internships. Cash points out that Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia already have regulations that, to varying degrees, outlaw unpaid internships—usually with the caveat that, to be legal, an internship must be more valuable to the intern than the for-profit company, and that the intern cannot replace a paid position. Otherwise, interns are actually employees and must be paid minimum wage.
The problem, Cash said, is that laws around internships are rarely enforced. And for federally regulated industries, such as telecommunications, the rules are ambiguous at best. “I’ve spoken to students, I’ve spoken to urban workers, and I’ve spoken to businesses who are all confused about the rules,” Cash said. His strategy seeks to get Ottawa on track to clarify its own rules, and encourage the provinces to commit to a single, strict, standard that outlines how employers can take on interns.
Such a process, he said, would not necessarily affect co-op programs or educational placements, which are exempt from minimum wage laws, and it certainly wouldn’t stop volunteerism. The clarification would be aimed at for for-profit companies that “are misusing the whole internship system,” Cash said.
It is unclear how effective regulating away unpaid internships would be. Cash’s strategy doesn’t address the concept of underpaid internships (placements where the intern receives only a stipend or honorarium, common in media and publishing) or internships that blur the line between educational and exploitative.
Michael Hachey, a spokesperson for CBC, told J-Source that the public broadcaster “does not allow interns to take on work performed by [Canadian Media Guild] employees. Having said that, CBC News is affiliated with a few schools and offers unpaid internships to students but there is very specific criteria around them so as not to conflict with the CMG collective agreement.”
Most major news outlets in Canada seem to fall under such practices. The Canadian Intern Association has a “wall of shame” for exposing companies the group feels abuse the internship system, which doesn’t feature any journalistic outfits. This could be because many media outlets have set rules around unpaid internships, mandating that they must be for educational purposes, or that they must come with a stipend. While that might make some journalism internships legal under the vaguely defined laws, that doesn’t necessarily redeem them for many in the media industry. “Unpaid internships shouldn’t exist at all,” said Michael O'Reilly, president of the Canadian Freelance Union.
Karen Wirsig, an organizer for the Canadian Media Guild, said the guild’s collective agreements generally ensure that time limitations are placed on internships while still protecting academic placements, but “sometimes that line gets crossed.” The guild has “had to challenge the use and abuse of interns before for more than one of the employers where we have a collective agreement because the internship didn’t follow the rules,” she said.
Cash’s strategy would also target reforms to Employment Insurance (EI) and the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), to open the social security system that is otherwise hard for freelance or contract workers to break into.
Wirsig said the Canadian Media Guild would welcome “more fair terms” when it comes to EI and the CPP. Currently, under the CPP, if a freelancer were to start making contributions, they would be required to pay both the employee and the employer contributions. “They’re treating you like an actual employer,” Wirsig said.
A study commissioned by the CMG of workers in the factual television industry —which includes those involved in documentary and news production—found that of 328 workers surveyed, 66 per cent considered themselves freelancers, with only 30 per cent saying they had full-time employment. One per cent, or 33 people, said they were currently unpaid interns.
A vast majority—82 per cent—said they received no EI benefits when not working, compared to 11 per cent who did. The survey further found that three-quarters of those interviewed make almost all their income from factual television, and therefore don’t have a supplementary source of income. The study shows that half the workers in the factual television industry are under 40.
Cash’s urban worker strategy is aimed at remedying some of these types of labour inequalities. Cash has proposed that the strategy, if adopted, contain some form of income averaging, a special status in the tax code that would allow some workers to split their income over a few years. Its purpose, Cash said, would be to ensure that the government doesn’t treat freelancers or independent workers who earn a decent income one year—after publishing a book, or releasing an album, for example— like they are high-income earners, thus ensuring that otherwise under-paid workers are not facing a sudden tax burden. This is a policy ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) has been pushing for years.
The legislation, like most private members’ business from the opposition parties, has little chance of passing. Nevertheless, Cash is undaunted. “We need to get the system working for workers,” he said.
Justin Ling is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. He has reported from Montreal and Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Ling.
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