a conversation about unpaid internships

By Mike Valiquette
A few days ago, we posted openings at Toronto’s guru studios for unpaid internships in various positions.  We received an above average number of comments in response to those posts.
First of all, thank you for your response.  We get next to no discussion in our comments section.  That’s our norm.  We also recently had a small outbreak of poorly-worded, overly negative comments that had to be removed, something I don’t like to do.  The reaction to the guru posts were generally well thought out, intelligent criticism.  A few veered into extremes, but for the most part, the reaction was balanced and considered, and some even showed support for guru’s long history as a fair, friendly employer.  This is something I want to be clear about before progressing as well.  I’ve never worked directly for guru, but I know a few people who have and have spoken very highly of their experience.  I’ve met Mary Bredin on a few occasions, and I’ve found her to be approachable, kind and intelligent.  I received communication from guru yesterday, asking for the posts to be removed, as the positions have been filled.  I offered them the opportunity to address the comments, and they have assured me that a response is on its way.

But  a few points were raised that should be addressed.  The primary concern is that, in the wording of the posts, it appeared that guru would be taking on unpaid interns to participate in the production of one of their series contracts. Specifically, the following: “looking for Animation Interns to assist with the second season of our internationally broadcast show, Justin Time”  That seems pretty straightforward.  In fact, under responsibilities, it even states: Assist animation team to meet the needs of the production.  So really, there’s no confusion there.  For whatever reason, guru was clearly looking for unpaid interns to work on Justin Time.
This angered many members of our animation community.  Some reacted viscerally, but others were more constructive, pointing out specifically:

Unpaid internships are fine, but only if you are being mentored in-studio and do not touch any of the productions. The moment you do work for even a single shot, they must remunerate you for your time.

And the following allegation appeared:

All the internships appear to contravene the Employment Standards Act, 2000

The topic of unpaid internships is one that comes up fairly often.  Cartoon Brew posted on it last year, and their position on it is right in the headline: Most Unpaid Internships Are Illegal.  The post garnered much commentary, some inflammatory, some considered.  What I didn’t see in it was factual support for their statement.  But if you click through to the source of the discussion, a New York Times article on the rise of unpaid internships and subsequent government crackdown, you’ll see that our American cousins have some pretty concrete rules about what constitutes an internship.  They quote a few basic parameters: “Among those criteria are that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.” So they’re saying that interns need to be getting training, like they would in school, not be doing work that would otherwise go to a paid worker, and that the employer isn’t really getting anything concrete in return.  Ok, that seems pretty straightforward, and also sounds like bad news for guru. But guess what?  After a phone call with a representative from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, it appears that we don’t have any legislation that addresses this in so direct a fashion.

It looks like the issue is in the question itself.  We’re asking if these interns should be getting paid for their work or not.  But therein lies the conundrum.  Because they’re not getting paid, they’re not technically employees, and therefore, not covered under the employment standards act.  They’re volunteers, pure and simple.  The act itself is available online, and if anyone can find more relevant info in there, please share.  There is another document, however, that’s not available online.  It’s the Policy and Interpretation Manual.  The guy I got on the phone was good enough to put me on hold and do some reading.  Here’s what we arrived at.

The first key part to the volunteer situation is what is termed  ”Initiation”.  Basically, as long as both parties are cool with the arrangement, and the terms are clear at the start, then no one’s doing wrong by anybody.

Next are the circumstances.  As far as I can tell, this simply means that if the circumstances continue to adhere to the original understanding, then again, all’s cool.

The next part is where it gets interesting though, “control”.  This is a volunteer situation, and has to remain as such.  The moment the company in question begins to exert control over the volunteer, such as mandatory work hours, the relationship is altered.  Behaviour must remain reflective of volunteer status, not employee status.  If the volunteer doesn’t show up, or doesn’t complete an assignment, and is penalized for it, such as dismissal, the company in question could then be on the hook for past wages due the volunteer for contributions they have made up til that point.

It’s all very nebulous and grey, and really, as long as the company in question maintains a very specific language in dealing with the volunteer, then no one’s breaking any laws.

Doesn’t mean it’s cool though.


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70 Responses to “a conversation about unpaid internships”

  1. mike magnan

    I dont ANON anything. Turst me..I’m telling the truth. Guru is going for free trade. Something I think is repulsive. Sorry for being vitriolic..but nobody messes with my family..

    #41435
  2. charlie (v1)

    @Charlie v2: I agree. Some interns should post their experiences here. I’ve worked with and interviewed many interns and I’m very clear of the new tactics but it’s not my place to point fingers naming which studios are doing what.

    @southern man: It’s not perfect, but it’s working for us. I guess I do work with incredible people, and I still do. I don’t it’s naive that we can continue to do this. We’ve successfully pulled it off for 1.5 years now. When you’ve been in a situation where you’re working 6-7 days, 60-100+ hours a week without being paid for OT for a year straight, it changes you and everyone you work with to be a lot closer.. We’ve experienced tactics where people get fired to set an example to light the fire under our bum to work like animals. As I get older, I really don’t want to go through what I’ve done for years, and I want to prevent this from continuing. For me, the only way we solved this was to put our foot down as a team.

    On my last vacation, I secretly went to another company for my 5 weeks off. I brought the same mentality to other studios, and after my vacation is up, I resign and return back to my safe haven. Ending up, I was able to destroy that company, got all the supervisors, leads and seniors to jump ship, then hire their departments back at the studios they went to.

    It’s really my goal to setup a union type system since IATSE hasn’t started one officially for Toronto citizens, we’ve taken things into our own hands.

    Hmph: You’re right! There is no money for you. Companies use excuses to justify why they can’t pay you like the economy is bad, we underbid, we don’t have the budget to offer you the salary you deserve, and overtime.

    If you investigate studio owners… One of the toronto animation studio owner has 3 cars, each worth 500 K. When he wants to go buy clothes he doesn’t go to a Toronto mall, instead of flies to new york, and back. Another one said he has no money for a raise because the project costed way too much to finish, and next thing you know he bought two porshes. Another one said there’s no money for overtime and we found out he bought a 2 million dollar house.

    When you factor this in, OF COURSE there’s no money for you! They’re always paying themselves first!

    Over here we always get over-time. No one in my departments works OT for free. If we do over-time, we also get dinner and taxi paid for. This is for everyone, not only high level people.

    Senior/lead salaries range from 80-120 K. When you’re in a high level position you’ll know how much money these studios take in!

    Next time they tell you there’s no money, figure out where the money is being spent. Sometimes you may have to do some digging like looking through pay roll and see how much everyone in the company is making to have an understanding. This can be challenging to do but it can be done.

    @Mike Magnan: Since you mention Corus, do you have anything to share? I’ve always heard its a place we go to when we’re ready to die (retirement home)

    @NoName: That’s great you worked in the states. It’s day and night. I had classmates who went to work at Pixar/Dreamworks/Disney as their first job but after they were let go, and returned to be with family and friends in Toronto. They went through long periods of depression working at all these crappy studios they realize what it’s really like. The most common thing I hear from people is that if you want to be treated good, or you want to do good work you have to get out of Toronto. I’ve also heard that no one good is in Toronto for long. If they’re good, they’ll get out of here asap.

    But it really doesn’t have to be like this.

    @xguruvian: You’re too outdated with 3d studio practices for internships then… The interns I’ve interviewed told me the toronto studios are unpaid, plus there was never coverage on bus passes. They would tell them they would cover the costs of transportation and lunches but 6 months went by with nothing.

    Now students pay a fee to get hired! I interviewed one fellow when I questioned why was his experience was so short because I was familiar with this company accepting pay checks in exchange for experience. After 3-4 weeks they fired him and didn’t return his money. The pay check deal was 4 months of experience but the studio never held up their bargain.

    #41436
  3. Phil

    At least in China, a college grad who can only get a job at an IPad factory gets paid $22US a day.

    Canadian animators with college education and “1-2 years experience” are only offered unpaid internships for full time work?

    http://www.learn4good.com/jobs/creative_arts_and_media/e/137054/search/toronto/

    LOLOLOLOL

    #41444
  4. Foobar

    So… does anyone know if Guru is being investigated? Is it worth reporting?

    Has anyone contacted a union to get their advice? Anyone on this?

    For personal reasons I can’t do the leg work, but any chest thumpers out there want to get any kind of ball rolling (other that typing about it)? If so, I’d sign on.

    #41511
  5. test me

    I got screwed by bigstudios in toronto..didn’t pay me for working on a paying gig while interning. I got let go and replaced by interns and students for cheap wages. Shit happens.. I agree with Magnan.

    #41514
  6. scratchy

    Looks like the design industry is getting this too: http://www.no-spec.com/ And yes unpaid internships on production work are really spec, because the student wants to land a job. Say no to spec!

    #41529
  7. Michael

    @CHARLIE v1 “I’ve always heard its a place we go to when we’re ready to die (retirement home)”

    And, ironically, what you actually mean is that Corus is a place that is relatively stable and provides the sort of salaries and benefits and working environment you are whining about not getting elsewhere. Nice.

    #41580
  8. Phil

    Local schools are in cahoots with this fiasco. Ryerson, Sheridan…linkeIn if you need proof.

    http://studentambassador.blog.ryerson.ca/2011/04/11/interning-at-guru-studio/

    “I did everything from general admin work, to filling out government funding and tax credit applications, organizing meeting schedules, taking notes during meetings and much much more.”

    She’s look happy though (see photo).

    #41589
  9. 44

    [b]“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”[/b] E. Burke

    I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand I’m excited because it seems that the community finally had enough, you raised your voice and it seems that you are ready to do something about the situation. On the other, I know that most people only complain, but in reality will not do anything to change their situation. Don’t complain to your friends or co-workers, they already know what’s happening.. if you want a change you must complain to those who don’t know.. yet.

    “Perhaps the business of animation needs the veil
    pulled back a little.” Sir William A. Harg

    P.S.: Witheld from spreading rumours about companies unless you have a first hand knowledge or a VERY reliable source. I’m not interested in rumours, only in facts.

    #41590
  10. Mike Magnan

    It’s about that Michael..above I get all that. Interning is the very best way to cut your teeth and get your chops up to snuff. But Studios that make their bottom line (Financing wise) on desperate kids is well..not quite correct in my view. And they hurt the Pros. THink about it. Who is pocketing the money? Not the talent! The Producers. Thats all I meant. That..has GOT to change.
    Although I might have some issues with Corus…I’ve never seen them abusing interns..quite the opposite.

    #41602
  11. Mike Magnan

    It’s time. We’ve been scared shitless for years to make an effort to unionize. I’ve seen directors fired for even uttering the notion..(And more than one). We need to put our pencils down..(Ok not when we’re alone..cause we can’t help it) and tell them to go…(You know where).
    But we can’t do it one by one. We need to ALL do it. I think Actra is a reasonable way to go.
    Just my opinion.

    Michel.

    #41603
  12. edwardh

    @ charlie (v1)

    “When you factor this in, OF COURSE there’s no money for you! They’re always paying themselves first!”

    How true. It’s stunning to me that across the board, people eat that shit up whenever companies say that they can’t afford something. What they can of course always afford is what you mentioned – their disproportionately huge cut.

    And it’s not like this would be a new thing in the history of man either. For instance greedy lords paying their serfs next to nothing while the serfs allegedly were often still happy that they had someone who looked out for their basic needs.
    But for more recent examples… How often do you hear about companies closing down because they were “not profitable” (and more and more often, I start to notice “not profitable ENOUGH”), yet the former owners have no problem keeping their lifestyle and starting up a new company. Where does the money for that come from?
    And of course if you are at all familiar with the “News”-section of any given newspaper, you may also have heard about various “bail outs” where those poor, suffering companies got a ton of money while usually none of their leading staff had to cut back. In fact, sometimes got bonuses.

    There is that saying…
    “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it”

    It’s just infuriating when so many people do it that you can really just watch. Because an important factor about what Mike Magnan has just said – if many people gobble up the bullshit, you can easily fire somebody for making demands because there are lots of people willing to be exploited. Only if many “get it”, one can make demands.

    So I think an important thing is to raise awareness. People keep saying “it’s a small field” about the CG business. So discuss this issue with your colleagues if you haven’t already. Because even if it doesn’t directly affect you or your colleague, it may affect whoever works with you colleague. Or a friend.
    Besides the effort to try to unionize, I would personally also try to leave exploitative companies as soon as possible. Because hoping for betterment through some regulation… is that really who you want to work for? Somebody so greedy he has to be forced to pay you (more)?

    #41667
  13. edwardh

    Although one thing that of course should also not be forgotten: That needs to be done internationally. Because these days, a lot of companies then go to countries where people can be exploited more easily. You can already see some of that in Europe, where one is hard pressed to find a renowned company at least in the feature film industry that doesn’t have a branch in a poor country.
    Therefore, I would for one thing argue for instance for no tax incentives or subsidies for companies that employ people abroad.

    #41669
  14. edwardh

    @ Phil:

    “She’s look happy though (see photo).”

    Yeah because so many people have a pissed off expression in photos. That is really some exceptional evidence.

    #41670
  15. charlie (v1)

    VFXSoldier has written a post on his blog about the Guru unpaid internship! Please discuss both here, and there. The more we expose about the industry, the more we have to show to the IATSE, and Ministry of Labour.

    http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/unpaid-internships-in-canada/#comment-4119

    #41714
  16. test me

    Are posts no longer going up administrator?

    Where is my post.

    #42179
  17. Foobar

    OK.. I said it once… I’ll say it again.
    ANYONE CONTACT A UNION?
    For advice or anything useful.
    Or is this place just full of a bunch of blowhards.

    Before anyone gets their hackles up and says “why don’t you do it?”
    As I mentioned in my last post… I have circumstances that do not allow me the time it would take to invest in this. I did how ever say.. if anyone were to get the ball rolling.. I would gladly sign on. Just getting that out of the way.

    So… anyone gonna put their money where their mouth is?

    #42378
  18. JP

    @Foobar: You are unintentionally hilarious!

    #42397
  19. Mico

    @JP: You are intentionally ambiguous. Please explain.

    #42419
  20. Hi Test,
    We may have unintentionally lost one of your posts if it appeared to be spam. We’re struggling to keep up with the amount of spam comments, so if you got lost in the mix, I do apologize and invite you to repost. I’ll do my best to watch for it and catch it before it gets junked.
    Thanks.

    #42466
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