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Protect our interns from exploitation: Thomas


On October 5, 2016, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of OPSEU, made a presentation to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly on Bill 64, the Protecting Interns and Creating a Learning Economy Act, 2016.

In his remarks, Thomas commended London West MPP Peggy Sattler, NDP critic for Training, Colleges and Universities, for introducing the bill and focusing on interns’ pressing need for protection from exploitation.

Thomas called the current context – where unpaid or underpaid internships are replacing entry-level positions – “disturbing” and hailed the balanced approach of the bill which, he said, “asks how we as a society can best support paid and meaningful internships that position our young people for success, while protecting them from exploitation.”

The full text of President Thomas’s remarks to the committee follows.

Good afternoon. I’m Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about Bill 64 and the important issue of protecting vulnerable workers from being exploited through unpaid internships.

Protecting vulnerable workers is close to the hearts of OPSEU’s 130,000 members: from our support for the Urban Worker Project, to the historic organizing drive we just completed of precarious part-time support staff in Ontario colleges – the largest organizing drive in Canadian history.

When I look around, I’m disturbed to see that unpaid or underpaid internships have become the “new normal” for too many of our young people. Internships are increasing – there are an estimated 100,000 in Toronto alone – while entry-level positions seem to be disappearing. And a youth unemployment rate in the mid-teens is leaving youth particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Despite this, we also know the important role of work-integrated learning in preparing our youth to succeed in the workplaces of the future.

That’s why I’m so pleased to see the contents of this bill. This is not a rejection of internships, nor is it an embrace of the “wild west” model we see today. It’s a balanced approach that asks how we as a society can best support paid and meaningful internships that position our young people for success, while protecting them from exploitation.

I’d like to touch on a couple of ways the bill does just that.

First, it identifies the need for a council with representatives from all interested parties to advise the minister on how to create and sustain a vibrant, challenging, and empowering work-integrated learning environment. OPSEU, as the bargaining agent for college faculty and support staff, would be happy to participate on this council and contribute to what will be important discussions.

Second, the proposals to extend the protections of the Employment Standards Act to all students in these programs are desperately needed. Basic protections, like limits on hours of work and the right to raise concerns with the Ministry of Labour without reprisal, should be there for everyone, particularly for young people just learning what to expect in the workplace.

Sadly, this need is illustrated by the case of one young co-op student, Adam Keunen, who was killed in 2014 while working for a Niagara region auto recycler. One young person who will never come home from work is one too many – we need to ensure that there are no more.

Interns who feel they need the connections and references their employer offers, and who see many of their peers unable to find work at all, aren’t likely to complain. That’s why we need the government to act to protect them.

I’m a parent myself, and I know how I’d feel if it was my child being exploited – I imagine many of you can as well. With this bill, we have an opportunity to act to protect all our youth.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today, and in particular for giving your time to an issue that will make such a difference for some of Ontario’s most vulnerable workers.

Thank you.