Commentary  SWSA Exec on the Implications of the Strike

Hello to The McGill Daily Editorial Board,

My name is Jacqueline Ohayon, I am the Activities Coordinator at the Social Work Student Association (SWSA). I am writing to you as an executive member of the SWSA. As you may or may not have heard, our School is participating in a strike next week, from November 19 to November 23, alongside 30,000 students across Quebec. In my capacity as Activities Coordinator, I am responsible for organizing and coordinating the activities, events, and workshops at the McGill School of Social Work for the week. I am working in collaboration with the UQAM Social Work Student Association (AETS-UQAM), the UQAM Coalition Against Unpaid Internships (CUTE-UQAM), and the UdeM Social Work Student Association (AESSUM), in organizing inter-university events in order to build and foster solidarity among students across universities in Montreal.

Field placements for students in social work, nursing, occupational therapy, and early childhood education are unpaid,  unlike internships for our peers in areas such as engineering or medicine. On top of working 16, 20, sometimes over 25 unpaid hours a week, while attending classes, students must undergo additional paid employment in order to meet their basic needs. Therefore, in the McGill School of Social Work, students essentially pay tuition to intern for free for 200 hours per semester, while taking four classes,  for a full course load. This not only puts an immeasurable burden on students who are disproportionately affected by mental health issues and burnout, but also unjustly places additional barriers on students for whom these effects are compounded by multiple, intersecting levels of marginalization (LGBTQ2S+, racialized, Indigenous, parents, caregivers, etc.).

The fight for the remuneration of internships is a feminist issue, as it mostly deals with training areas traditionally dominated by women, where internships are not only mostly unpaid, but also where care is an integral part of employment. These include teaching, nursing, early childhood education, specialized education, and social work, all of which are vocations for which self-sacrifice is expected. This observation is reminiscent of one of the essential remarks of Simone de Beauvoir: women are traditionally and continually called to abdicate their freedom for the benefit of others, and to play roles of devotion. The current over-representation of women in the areas of paid and unpaid care illustrates this phenomenon.

The over-representation of women in unpaid internships in underfunded public and community sectors demonstrates this requirement of self-sacrifice. It stems from the widespread perception that work in domains which provide care for others does not necessarily deserve pay, that some people would do it for free – and, indeed, that many interns agree that it is “natural” that they are not paid for this work. This illustrates the persistence of expected and standardized devotion and self-sacrifice of women, and of all individuals working in domains which involve caring for others.

The complete and utter lack of recognition of field placements and internships as labour under the Normes du Travail du Québec means that student interns have absolutely no rights when it comes to their labour. They are subjected to any conditions provided by their supervisors and field directors, and are not legally protected. We therefore demand, as interns and as students, that our labour be recognized and valued. In fact, more generally, the movement aims to recognize studying as intellectual work deserving of a salary and suitable conditions. As valuable and essential members of society and future workforce, students deserve living conditions which are not burdened by staggering student poverty and mental health issues. We are not only deserving of this – we are demanding it.

In Solidarity,

Jacqueline Ohayon
Activities Coordinator / Coordonnatrice aux activités
Social Work Student Association [SWSA] McGill
Association Étudiante de Travail Social [AÉTS] McGill

Erratum: The Daily was made aware that the claim that internships in medicine are remunerated, made in the sentence: “Field placements for students in social work, nursing, occupational therapy, and early childhood education are unpaid,  unlike internships for our peers in areas such as engineering or medicine” is not true. Medical students are not remunerated for clerkship, which is the collection of internships in 3rd and 4th year of medical school (M3-M4). Once medical students (M1-M4) graduate and become residents (R1-R6, length of residency depending on the specialty), they start being remunerated. Medical students are part of the undergraduate medical education program (UGME), and medical residents are part of the postgraduate medical education program (PGME).