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UFV social work students joined Québec students in solidarity Nov. 20, walking out of their classes in protest against unpaid practicums. Thirty students waved signs and marched through the Abbotsford campus, into the SUB and library, and past their social work classes.

Becky Edwards, president of the UFV student social work association, said the main purpose of the protest was awareness. Students in programs such as nursing, social work, and education are required to participate in unpaid, for-credit practicums as part of their degree or certificate that can total up to a year of work.  

“This has been an ongoing issue for a long time and it’s important to bring it to light. That’s usually what propels change, when people know about things in the first place,” Edwards said.

“We want to be paid and acknowledged for the work that we do. A guy going into a trade would be paid for an apprenticeship and we deserve the same acknowledgement.”

The UFV students were a small part of the overall protest. Over 50,000 students in Québec left their unpaid practicum placements for a week and took to the streets in protest. The demonstrations were mainly centralized in Montréal, and included students at Université du Québec à Montréal, McGill University, and Université de Montréal.

Practicum placements that are part of postsecondary education are excluded from both B.C.’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) and Québec’s An Act Respecting Labour Standards (ALS). The work done by students is considered an extension of their in-class learning and therefore training instead of “work,” and is exempt from employment standards across Canada, including B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and Québec.

As it is not considered work, agencies have no legal obligation to pay practicum students. Agreements between schools and the agencies dictate employments standards, such as the length of break students are entitled to and general working conditions.

Edwards claimed that many agencies bringing on unpaid practicum students rely on these students to run.

“They’re relying solely on this free labour to make their agencies work,” Edwards said.

At UFV, social work students are required to participate in two semesters of practicum placements as part of their degree: one three days per week for six credits and the other four days per week for nine credits. Students work for seven hours per day in addition to the other courses and seminars required during the semesters.

Edwards said practicums in the social work program total over 400 hours of unpaid work. Additionally, students need to pay for the credits associated with the placement, around $1,400.

“The feminized professions so social work, nursing, and education are all expected to perform practicums totalling a full year of work for free,” Edwards said.

“This is a problem because it is a female-dominated field … so we’re already coming in marginalized and poor, being students.”

The UFV social work students will be following up the protest with a letter-writing campaign to their local MLAs and MPs. The group will also be presenting at the Canadian Association of Social Work Education conference in May to ensure student voices are heard.   

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