On the morning of Monday, Nov. 19, more than 55,000 university and Cégep students in Québec marched out of class in protest against unpaid internships. The central demand of the strike is for internships to be paid like any other job. Many of these internships are mandatory and take up hundreds of hours per semester, for which students receive zero pay. This week marked the breaking point for Québec students, who braved the snow and ice to send a message to the government and university administrations that they would not be slaves any more!

Students on strike!

By Friday, Nov. 16, roughly 32 student associations, representing some 58,000 students, had voted to go on strike for five days, from November 19 through 23. Some associations voted to strike one, two, or three days of that week. This included three universities: l’Université de Montréal, McGill, and UQAM (l’Université de Québec à Montréal), as well as four CEGEPs (Québec technical colleges). The strike began with hundreds of students arriving to picket Cégep du Vieux-Montréal on Monday morning. Later that day, up to 58,000 students were on strike across the province of Québec. The majority of striking students were centred in Montréal, but walkouts and strikes were also organized in Rimouski, Québec City, Sherbrooke and Gatineau. This is the latest and most militant event in the ongoing fight against unpaid internships in Québec.

The strike was organized by activists with the CUTE (Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant, or the Unit Committees on Student Work), a grassroots committee set up to mobilize actions around the issue of unpaid internships. Amelie Poirier, a member of CUTE, stated the goal of the strike: “This week, we are on strike to demand pay for all internships, at all levels of study.” The official website of the movement against unpaid internships states that: “The remuneration of internships is not a luxury or a gift given to students: it is the elimination of free labour, a gift given to companies and to the state.”

The height of the weeklong strike occurred on Wednesday, when several thousand students held a demonstration in downtown Montréal. The overall mood was very militant. Many students remember the momentous student strike of 2012, when the militant action of Québecois youth brought down the Liberal government of Jean Charest. Activists with La Riposte socialiste, the Quebec section of the International Marxist Tendency, set up a socialist contingent to show our solidarity with the striking students. Other smaller demonstrations took place in Rimouski, Québec City, Sherbrooke, and Gatineau.

The CUTE warned that “if by the end of this week, we have not obtained pay for all internships, in all fields, an unlimited general strike will be declared in the winter of 2019.”

Unpaid internships: Student exploitation

More than 500,000 Canadian university and college students partake in internships every year, 55,000 of those being in Québec. However, nowadays most internships are unpaid. In fact, students paying tuition are literally paying to work for free! This means that internships are undoubtedly suited for students from rich families who can afford to work for free. Unlike short-term and summer internships, those arranged by universities and colleges are semester or year-long internships, and often count for course credit. In this way, internships are forced upon students irrespective of class background. This creates immense pressure for working class students, who often have part-time jobs outside of school in addition to their internships.  

It is not uncommon for students to have one or even two jobs outside of their unpaid internship.  Cégep Vieux-Montréal student Maria Alexandra Craciun told CTV in an interview the hardships of young student workers: “It was really hard because I’d do eight hours a day with an internship then I’d have to go work like a six-hour shift right after my internship,” Another McGill social work student, Matthew Savage, interviewed in the same article stated: “I’m working three part-time jobs right now, plus my internship, plus class.” Study internships are valuable learning opportunities for students, especially in health, social work, and education. However, this is abused by private companies and the government who use student interns as a pool of free labour.

Since 2008, world capitalism has been thrust into a downward spiral. We are living through a period, not of growth and reforms, but of capitalist crisis: cuts, austerity, and counter-reforms. As the economy tightens, the first sacrifices on the altar of the free market are social services, education, and healthcare. While the government makes massive cuts, they use student interns to pick up the slack. As Ms. Ohayon, a member of the Social Work Student Association at McGill, explained to The Globe and Mail: “We’re there to take some of the load off them. And we’re completely necessary – without us, they won’t run.” The government relies on free labour to run essential clinics, homeless shelters, home visits, elder care, etc. Canada’s ‘cheap government’ is being built on students’ free labour. In the private sector, interns yield massive profit compared to full-time employees.

Some have pointed out that not all university internships are unpaid. However, those few internships that offer compensation are almost exclusive to computer science and engineering majors. Meanwhile, the majority of unpaid internships involve students in traditionally “household work” such as social services, education, health care, and caregiving; fields that are underfunded  by the government and predominantly occupied by women. This glaring sexist prejudice is demonstrated by the fact that 74 per cent of women who are required to take an internship are unpaid, compared with only 37 per cent of men. This disparity contributes to the already outrageous pay gap between men and women in Canada.

Under the current conditions, interns are under the boot of both the university and their internship supervisors. Internships are not considered employment under Québec labour law. This means that interns have little or no protection from unsafe working conditions, harassment, and long work hours. We can see students forcing themselves to continue work in abusive environments out of fear of failing a class or not graduating. An example of this was in March, when Laurie Bissonnette was continually harassed by an older colleague at her internship with a company. She was cold-shouldered by the company and the university administration, forcing her to continue her internship under uncomfortable  conditions.

On the other hand, the universities don’t see unpaid internships as a general problem. The director of McGill’s School of Social Work Nico Trocmé explained in an article in The Globe and Mail that his 180 internships should be recognized as “educational and not a work placement.” This shows the real face of universities under capitalism. The board of directors of Québec universities are not only defending unpaid internships, but are asking students to be thankful for them! This is because the interests of both the newly elected CAQ government and the university and Cégep administrations are identical. They are both working together to offload the crisis of the capitalist system onto the shoulders of workers and youth.

Workers and students unite!

The fantastic energy and militancy displayed by the youth of Quebec is second to none. However, even 50,000 students on strike isn’t enough to force back the austerity agenda of the reactionary CAQ government. The natural ally for students in this struggle is the working class as a whole and unionized workers in particular. The trade unions have a direct interest in fighting for  interns to have full union rights with full wages and benefits. They also have the power to shut down Quebec if they so choose.

The recent phenomenon of unpaid internships  stems from the fact that employers prefer to shift work onto unpaid interns instead of maintaining their paid staff or hiring new workers.  In other words, the use of unpaid interns comes at the expense of existing workers, and feeds into the race to the bottom for wages. Premier François Legault recently stated that he will cut 5,000 public sector jobs through attrition. This of course doesn’t mean that the workload will decrease, only that managers will increasingly get unpaid interns to pick up the slack. From this, neither workers or students will benefit.

The student and workers’ movements must develop plans to actively link these struggles together. If the students and workers join forces, there is nothing in the world that can stop them.

Victory to the striking interns!
Students and workers, unite and fight!