Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2004

How to stop high-end magazines from using sweatshop labour

Art Johnson

This Magazine wishes to thank Human Resources Development Canada for providing us with wage subsidies to pay our two summer interns, JuliaÊWilliams (left), and Jenn Hardy.It’s astonishing to me how something that is righteously condemned as an evil practice when it occurs in a remote corner of the world can be tolerated and, indeed, even celebrated, right here in Canada.

When Canadians read or heard disclosures about how Nike footwear was being produced in Vietnamese sweatshops by people who work for next to nothing in appalling conditions and at an inhuman pace, we were outraged enough to join an international clamour to force the company to deal only with responsible and ethical contractors.

And when news reports reached Canada about how Wal-Mart sourced much of its cheap merchandise from China, where it is often produced under even worse conditions than Nike footwear used to be in Vietnam, we also demanded that the world’s largest retailer be more scrupulous in choosing suppliers.

But go to any newsstand in Canada and choose a Canadian magazine at random, and chances are excellent that you will have fresh evidence of a cynical, widespread scheme to apply the methods of the sweatshop to young, vulnerable people who are so desperate to join the ranks of the employed that they will actually compete with one another for the opportunity to work for free.

What’s especially repugnant about this to me, a journalist, is that magazines, which should be exposing such ugly, shoddy practices, are gleefully embracing unpaid internships to cut costs and increase profits, and are proud of it.

Lynn Cunningham, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University who has tracked the spread of unpaid internships since the early 1990s, says that most magazines across Canada have such programs, and that not paying people to work has spread to broadcasting and to some community newspapers which do not have labour unions and collective agreements.

These unpaid arrangements began in magazines in the United States during the last recession and, like a plague (think of it as “Cash Cow Disease”), soon spread to Canada. In no time, some of the most successful magazines in Canada, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night, Flare, Vancouver and many others were generously offering to let young, unemployed would-be journalists hang out, fetch coffee, check facts, suck up to editors and, if they were very, very lucky, maybe even write a story or two which would be published under their byline.

(Many small magazines, like this one, offer unpaid internships not to generate large profits, but because they genuinely have no money. Such magazines are often a labour of love, and many have no paid staff at all.)

It’s probably not surprising that other magazine departments have been inspired to emulate some of Canada’s most celebrated editors. Cunningham observes that at some places, it’s now possible for the truly gullible or desperate to serve as unpaid “circulation interns.”

I think we condone the sleazy practices of large magazines in the mistaken belief that they are, at worst, akin to being victimless crimes (hey, it’s kids from affluent families who are willingly working for free, after all).

But that, of course, means that less affluent kids are more at risk than ever of being squeezed entirely out of a vast and important segment of our mass media.

Cunningham also notes that by embracing unpaid internships, editors are training publishers “to believe that editorial people will work for free.” It’s a notion that many publishers are all too willing to believe, and to act upon.

I don’t think you, the reader, should have to put up with this. Magazines, remember, are extraordinarily sensitive and vulnerable to pressure, properly applied.

Let me suggest that you make inquiries immediately about whether magazines you read employ unpaid interns. If they do, make note of advertisers in these magazines and inform the advertisers that you intend to boycott their products if they insist on doing business with publishers who engage in practices that would not be condoned, even in most parts of the Third World.

And find out whether your favourite magazines are receiving money from the federal slush fund supposedly set up to help publishers weather the onslaught of competition from the south, which never happened. Write to the feds, and demand that they withdraw such support from any magazines that don’t pay their people.

Finally, get in touch with the editors and publishers themselves. I doubt that it would make a damn bit of difference, but it’s the right thing to do.

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