On November 3, Bank of Canada Governor, Stephen Poloz, gave a speech in the House of Commons that enraged, rather than enlightened, young adults in the workforce. Offering advice on how discouraged youth can tackle the dwindling economy by finding a job, Poloz stated, “Having something unpaid on your CV is very worth it because that’s the one thing you can do to counteract this scarring effect. Get some real-life experience even though you’re discouraged, even if it’s for free.” What Stephen Poloz doesn’t know, as a man sitting comfortably on top of his workforce hierarchy while being paid a generous salary, is that his classist advice is a promotion of structural violence that directly harms marginalized youth workers.
“Structural violence” is not just fancy jargon that inhabits textbook pages, but a socio-cultural problem that is currently affecting Canadian youth in institutional settings. Although it is not yet the mot du jour for young adults in today’s typical workplace, it is important for young adults to educate themselves about this phenomenon in order to understand how it operates within governmental, public, and private settings. In essence, structural violence occurs when an institution’s systematic abuse of power creates obstacles that only people of certain classes can overcome, resulting in inequality.
Many young workers experience structural violence even before knowing that there is a term for the injustices they have faced. What makes tackling structural violence even more frustrating is that the term itself is broad. When we hear the word “violence,” we automatically think of the kind we hear most about—the physical kind. Our idea of violence is something visible, abrupt, and momentous. Yet structural violence is invisible, calculated, and spans across decades of bureaucratic policies that limit the opportunities for marginalized groups to be included in any setting.
Structural violence is systemic inequality created by institutional settings and cultural values that exclude and perpetuate the marginalization of people who identify as part of a minority. The discourse over structural violence is very dense, but it is applicable to many social issues due to its intersectionality. People affected by structural violence are those who have experiences with racism, ableism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and so on. From micro-aggressions like buildings having only female and male bathrooms to job openings requiring newcomers to have at least five years of permanent residence in Canada, structural violence is everywhere. Stephen Poloz’s insensitive comment about “unpaid work” is another unfortunate example, as he disregards youth workers of lower economic classes.
Young adults, as entry-level workers, spend years paying their dues until they can find the financial stability they need to acquire the role they desire. The Bank of Canada recently estimated that 200,000 Canadian youth have expressed a desire to work. With high numbers of youth looking for paid positions, the competition for entry-level jobs tends to be tougher than it is for higher-level ones. Yet, more competition also attracts the most diverse crowd of applicants. People of different economic classes, different professional connections, and different educational backgrounds apply for such jobs. The point of entry-level positions is to let beginners learn while working. Young adults who are interested in getting a job or who want to advance into their career field look for the accessibility that the entry-level position can offer them.
“We have been creating jobs at a trend rate of less than 1%, well below what one would expect from an economy that is recovering,” said Poloz, elaborating on the current state of discouraged youth looking for advanced work. However, the suggestion that unpaid work will help with career advancement implies that the 1% of new jobs will likely be more accessible for workers who belong to the economical 1%, meaning those belonging to the upper-middle class and higher.
Canada is no stranger to the uproar over unpaid internships—in fact, interning for no pay is illegal. In the case of the Employment Standards Act of Ontario, however, a loophole allows unpaid internships to exist. Noted in section (1) p.2.II of the act under the “Person receiving training” heading, if “the training is for the benefit of the individual,” then unpaid work can be a legal exception. To add more to the equation, many employers who used to offer unpaid internships are now calling them “voluntary training positions.” Voluntary work is legal in Canada (though the ethics of not volunteering for a community but for a work sector is questionable), and therefore this loophole helps to refurbish the unpaid internship, turning it into a “volunteer” position. The unpaid internship may technically be gone in the Canadian work system, but the value of gaining experience through “volunteering” is still a desirable aspect of a young person’s resume.
However, the consequences of valuing this type of position are devastating. Voluntary unpaid work, when it is labelled as a necessity for climbing the socio-economic hierarchy of each working field, unfortunately limits the diversity of applicants that are “eligible” to apply for entry-level jobs. Youth from lower classes literally cannot afford to take the risk of an unpaid internship, and they therefore lack the experience that their unpaid internship-experienced competitors have. This discussion even grossly excludes street-involved youth, most of whom do not have a claim to permanent residence. How can the idea of unpaid work lessen the “scarring effect” of an empty space on a resume if even securing shelter is an obstacle (forget living in their parents’ basements, as Poloz suggested in his speech)? Supporting the concept of unpaid work will make it a social norm—or worse, a criterion that takes away the necessity of the entry-level jobs and lessens the opportunity for everyone to improve.
Understanding the economic diversity of youth workers is the first step of helping to eliminate class-based structural violence and systemic inequality from happening in workplace institutions. What Stephen Poloz needs to know is that not every youth has the luxury of working for free, because not every youth comes from a financially secure background. Encouraging the idea that “unpaid work” should become a competitive quality marginalizes youth of lower economic statuses and prevents them from working their way up the ladder in their chosen field. In order for economic inclusivity in the workplace to exist, youth need the ability and accessibility to “pay their dues,” and that comes with gaining experience that is paid. After all, if people deserve credit where credit is due, then youth workers deserve payment for paying their dues.
Structural Violence: Systemic inequality that excludes the accessibility of opportunities and inclusion for people of marginalized and minority statuses.
Intersectionality: The concept that different kinds of oppressive institutions (sexism, racism, ableism, etc.) are interconnected.
Micro-Aggression: Brief, minimal gestures or interactions that casually degrade people of marginalized and minority groups.