Canada: "Will Work For Free!": Employers, Beware Of Offers Of Free Work By Unpaid Interns

Last Updated: July 24 2013
Article by Lai-King Hum

Co-authored by Kristen Pennington, student at law

Mix high unemployment amongst recent graduates with a desire to gain experience and contacts by working for free, and a seemingly ideal opportunity for employers is created. However, employers expose themselves to claims and liability if they are seduced by the "free work" temptation to offer an unpaid internship without understanding what it entails.

This situation has gained considerable attention in the United States in recent years, spawning many individual lawsuits and several significant class actions. In the last year alone, high profile class actions include one for $50 million dollars against Elite Model Management and another one involving 40 unpaid interns at a law firm alleged to be an "intern mill".

The issue has also garnered a clamour of media and political attention in Canada in the last few years. Most recently, media reports suggest that one of the country's largest employers is offering an illegal internship program and taking advantage of young unemployed people eager to gain any foothold into employment. A complaint has been filed with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada for unpaid wages.

In light of the experience in the United States, the time seems ripe for a class action to materialize in Canada, particularly against employers who regularly use unpaid interns. The financial stakes can be very high.

What are the laws in Canada regarding unpaid internships? Provincial and federal employment legislation set out the rules and regulations for employees. However, there is no clarity on what is meant by an "intern". Employers need to refer to applicable employment standards legislation to ensure that their "intern" does not fall into the definition of an "employee" performing work in return for wages.

British Columbia's Interpretation Guidelines Manual notes that an "internship" is on-the-job training offered by an employer to provide a person with practical experience, as opposed to "work" which refers to the labour or services performed by an employee in return for wages.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour provides a fact sheet, "Are Unpaid Internships Legal in Ontario", addressed to those working as an "intern". Based on the fact sheet, an intern that does not meet all the following stringent conditions is an "employee":

  • Is the training similar to that received in a vocational school? Training would include instruction, supervision, and evaluation, and entail skills-training specific to a particular field or industry.
  • Is the training for the benefit of the intern? The internship must be focused on the training of the intern, and the employer is to receive little if any benefit from the training. If the employer receives the benefit of the intern's work, then the intern must be paid as he or she has provided a service.
  • Does the training replace the work of another employee? The intern must not be given work that a paid employee would ordinarily do.

  • Has the intern been promised a job at the end of the training? The intern may be advised of the legitimate possibility of a job at the end of the training, but may not be promised a job once the internship is completed. If the latter, the intern would be considered an employee.
  • Have you made it clear that the internship is unpaid? Interns must be advised in advance that the internship is unpaid.

In Québec, a regulation under the employment legislation refers to unpaid interns as "stagiaires" or trainees. Employees who are trainees are not subject to the application of the employment standards legislation if they are under a program of vocational training recognized by law, the nature and duration of which is also determined by that law.

There is no other mention of interns in Canadian law. Most of the other provinces define "work" and "employee" broadly, but generally link either employee or work with an agreement for the payment of wages. Newfoundland's legislation does not define work, and simply defines "employee" as a natural person who works under a contract of service to an employer, which seems to imply that all interns must be paid at least a minimum wage.

In light of the confused state of the law across Canada, any employer considering taking up a person's offer to "work for free" must beware. Offering an unpaid internship to a person who ought legally be characterized as an "employee" may subject the employer to significant and unexpected liability for unpaid wages, vacation and holiday pay, overtime, and possibly termination pay if the employer ended the internship. There may also be issues related to workers' compensation insurance and vicarious liability for the actions of the intern/employee. If the mischaracterization relates to a large number of interns in a flawed internship program, the employer faces potentially ruinous liability in a class action proceeding.

Any employer considering offering unpaid internships should be fully familiar with the applicable employment standards, and consider having detailed documentation about the internship and the training benefit available for the intern. To minimize the risk of claims and complaints, and potential liability, employers should consult an experienced lawyer who can assist in the implementation of the internship program. 

The foregoing provides only an overview. Readers are cautioned against making any decisions based on this material alone. Rather, a qualified lawyer should be consulted.

© Copyright 2013 McMillan LLP

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Lai-King Hum
In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.