Canadian students will soon embark upon their annual ritual,
scouring the marketplace for scarce spring and summer employment,
hoping to get experience in their field of study. While some will
be fortunate enough to find paid work, most will take unpaid
internships or co-op placements to bolster their resumés.
But, similar to contractors, calling someone an intern does not
transform them into one.
What qualifies as an internship and when can employers legally
get away with not paying wages?
With Generation Z — generally considered to be born from
mid-1990s on — complaining on the Twittersphere that they
can't find work without experience and they can't obtain
experience without a job, welcome to the Catch 22 that gives rise
to up to 300,000 unpaid internships across this country each year,
according to estimates by student organizations and advocacy
Are employers taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of
today's youth who just want to "break in" to certain
industries, like fashion, public relations, publishing and
In most provinces, unpaid internships are illegal unless they
meet one of three exemptions. The first is being part of a college
or university program whereby they receive academic credit. The
second is the exclusion of certain professions, such as law and
architecture, from the provincial employment standards legislative
minimum standards. The final and most problematic exemption
involves meeting legislative criteria.
In most provinces, that requires demonstrating that the intern
is receiving valuable vocational training; that it is of little or
no benefit to the employer; that they are not promised a job at its
conclusion; and they are not replacing a regular employee.
However, there is no one monitoring and enforcing these
exemptions. Employers with illegal unpaid internships are only
caught when someone complains to the Ministry of Labour. What young
intern is going to complain about the company providing them the
experience they desperately need to commence their career, and on
whom they are reliant for a reference? For many, on-the-job
experience is worth far more than a paycheque.
This attitude, however, is quickly changing. Last week, a group
of students from the University of Toronto launched a coalition,
"Students against Unpaid Internship Scams" and hosted a
rally. Since November 2013, there has been a flurry of media
attention with respect to the crackdown on unpaid internships and
the efforts of student lobby groups.
In addition, at the end of last year, Yasir Naqvi, the Ontario
Minister of Labour, tabled a bill broadening the definition of
"worker" and provided greater protections for interns
across the province.
The Courts are listening, too. In a recent case between Fitness
Plus and Sandra McPherson, the Ontario Labour Relations Board had
to decide whether McPherson was an employee of Fitness Plus and
therefore entitled to wages while she was receiving training for
the position of operations co-ordinator.
The board found she was auditioning for a full-time role, but
that much of the work she actually performed was reception and
maintenance, not personal training, which while of little benefit
to McPherson was of great benefit to Fitness Plus. The board said
McPherson was an employee and owed wages for her work.
Employers may now be facing uncharted territory when it comes
recruiting students for unpaid training programs. I now caution
employer clients, especially those in the entertainment and
non-for-profit industries, to be especially mindful when entering
the increasingly murky waters of internships.
Correction (April 1, 2014): An earlier version of this
column incorrectly attributed a statistic on unpaid internships to
Statistics Canada. The statistic was provided by estimates from
student and advocacy groups.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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