Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Slave Labor

The title of this post is rather provocative I will admit, but that is because it is designed to shake off some of the complacency that everyone seems to have about internships. My friends, most of them who interned befittingly at law firms or NPO's but who are none the less American, can't seem to understand why my Canadian sensibilities are so offended at the prospect of ten hour work days without so much as a break to pee. I suppose that is the difference between our cultures, but I digress.

There is no crying in pastry, however there is also no letting yourself be a doormat. Restaurant kitchens are mostly (and sadly) the domain of men and if you want to survive you have to be tough. For people like myself, who have no restaurant experience and are coming straight out of a classroom this is exceptionally difficult, no one wants to upset the status quo because the restaurant world is small and word of mouth travels quickly amongst chefs. Interns are at the bottom of the totem pole, even the dishwashers have more experience and are therefore treated with more respect. Interns are going to be doing the stuff no one else in the kitchen wants to do, sweeping, cleaning the walk in's, insane amounts of prep work, and the entire time you are going to be told you are to slow, you are doing it wrong, and there will be numerous jokes about your sexual orientation, your mother, your race, etc. But believe it or not, the taunts and the shit work will roll off your back if you let it, and that isn't the thing that is going to irritate you (or it least that is not the stuff that is irritating me) Nope, what has succeeded in pushing my big red button is the fact that schools and the employers that they send you to will nine times out of ten exploit you like so much slave labor in direct violation of the law.

But internships are unpaid in nature, correct? Well it depends. The U.S. Department of Labor has outlined a list of criteria that ALL must be met in order for an internship to be unpaid.

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training

Of special note to culinary or pastry students such as myself is number four. " The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded" Culinary and Pastry interns routinely do prep work, work the line, plate and garnish food and otherwise provide services from which the employer derives immediate advantage. Which means, by the letter of the law, that they do not qualify as unpaid internships and thus must be paid the minimum wage set by state.

On top of this, most culinary internships will schedule you for more than the required hours per week. My internship location scheduled me for 36 hours this week, double the 18 I am required. Will those extra hours count as credit completed and shorten the period of my stay? Nope. Do those extra hours, which are unpaid, prevent me from seeking paying employment? Definitely. Try finding a part time job that pays and will schedule your hours around when you aren't working full time at a place where you are free. Most times you won't even get an interview, especially in this economy.

But yet these practices continue, and to be honest one of my instructors put it to me best. For generations you became a chef if you either couldn't afford or couldn't make it in university. Parent's didn't dream that little Johnny or Susie would grow up to don a white coat and tall paper hat, they wanted their kids to be doctors, teachers, and lawyers. Therefore, the people who became line cooks or pastry people were (with some notable exceptions) those who were economically disadvantaged and therefore more prone to be taken advantage of. These people were not going to protest mistreatment, and to some extent that remains.

So what is an intern such as myself do to? You can talk to your employeer with the risk of your already craptastic list of duties becoming more so. You can talk to your school's representative and get the distinct impression that they really have better things to do than listen to you complain. You can contact the Dept of Labor and crash and burn any hope you have for a career in the future. But most of us will just quietly vow that when we have our own place we will never treat our interns thusly and suffer it out like our predecessors.

Me? I'm still weighing my options. But this is just another one of those instances where I am glad that I didn't give up my citizenship when I came to the US five years ago. I will gladly suffer higher taxes to live under the rule of a Government where my rights are not taken advantage of. And I am definitely not going another ten and a half hour day without taking a pee or lunch break.

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