Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The Law and Unpaid Internships: Who’s Looking Out For Who?

Just how protected are unpaid interns? You may be surprised to find out who isn’t looking out for them.

Just how protected are unpaid interns? You may be surprised to find out.

The issue of unpaid internships has become a hot topic across Canada. Proponents insist that unpaid internships give young people marketable work experience, while opponents say that the system is exploitative and potentially dangerous.

In September of this year, Laurentian University student Samantha Bokma made news when she submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Labour regarding an unpaid internship being offered in Barrie Member of Provincial Parliament Rod Jackson’s office.

Bokma, who was employed in the constituency office, was told her contract would not be renewed only to discover the office was offering an unpaid internship for someone to fulfill Bokma’s formerly paid duties.

Pressing need for better legislation

The death of NAIT broadcasting student Andy Ferguson in November 2011 recently made the news again. Ferguson died when his car collided with a truck after Ferguson, who interned with local radio stations owned by Astral Media, spent 16 hours of the previous 24 interning for no pay.

Ferguson allegedly told his girlfriend that he was told that if he didn’t work the overnight shift, he wouldn’t be given the credits he needed for graduation. His employer was not found in violation of labour code working hour provisions, as his internship was part of a schooling placement that isn’t covered under the law. Ferguson’s family is now pressing for legislation that would protect unpaid interns.

More recently, Toronto NDP Member of Parliament Andrew Cash introduced the National Urban Strategy bill in the House of Commons, which addresses the issue of unpaid internships. According to Cash’s bill, more than 100,000 interns work without a salary. Specifically, the bill aims to “[s]trengthen and enforce labour laws to prevent the misuse of unpaid internships.”

The truth is that there are no provincial or federal agencies tracking interns, including Statistics Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. As a result, Cash’s estimate of 100,000 unpaid interns may be on the low side, since there’s no accurate data to turn to. This includes an absence of data on students doing unpaid internships as part of a school program.

Interns left in a vulnerable position

Unpaid interns face a number of uphill battles.

Accepting an internship means sacrificing time and energy that could be spent working a paying job that isn’t related to their education or industry. Interns face the dilemma of having to make a calculated risk: gain experience in their field for no pay and hope a full-time position can be leveraged from that experience, or work for pay in an unrelated field while sending out resumes to organizations they would really like to work for.

Unpaid interns aren’t protected by health and safety laws. Even apprentices may not be completely protected by the Employment Standards Act. The Ontario ESA makes no mention of unpaid interns, which leaves it up to the schools and the company overseeing the internship to determine whether or not students are being exploited. ESA restrictions on maximum hours, for example, don’t apply to interns.

Even the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) may not apply to unpaid workers. The OHSA defines a worker as a person who performs work or supplies services for monetary compensation, which clearly excludes interns and co-op students.

Work placements for students remain a gray area

In a recent statement, Labour Minister Yasir Naqir said, “We are currently looking at bringing co-op students under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to ensure they have all the same rights and protections as all other workers.” Yet unpaid internships would be exempt from modifications, Naqvi says, because students receive course credit instead of money – which is considered a form of payment.

The Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE) issued a statement on unpaid internships and offers some guidelines on determining if your internship is legitimate or not. But again, while the guidelines may be useful, there’s very little recourse for students who feel they’re being exploited or whose program-related practicum isn’t providing them with genuinely useful real-world work experience.

What to do if you’re an unpaid intern

If you’re working as an unpaid intern or doing a work placement as part of a school program, there are some things you can do to keep yourself from being exploited.

  • The Canadian Intern Association offers a brief summary of provincial laws regarding unpaid internships, with links to the each province’s employment and/or labour acts. This is a good place to familiarize yourself not only with your own provincial laws, but also with the wording that excludes you from certain protections.
  • If a work practicum is part of your school program, ask administrators how many hours the internship will require and try to get specifics on the tasks that you’re likely to perform. Because there may be scant protection for interns under the law, your school should take on the responsibility of liaising between yourself and the company or organization hosting your practicum to ensure that (a) what you’re doing is useful and marketable as work experience in the future and (b) you’re not being asked to perform duties that are unrelated to your program.
  • During your internship, keep meticulous track of the hours and duties. If your duties are not relevant to your program, bring your list to your school’s administrators and discuss the situation with them as promptly as possible.
  • Turn down any duties that are unsafe and put you in danger of any kind. You have the right to refuse to participate in activities that put you in physical or emotional peril, even if your school or internship host don’t inform you of that fact.
  • Get involved! Talk to your school’s student union. Talk to administration. Find out what your school’s policy is regarding unpaid internships and work placements and if you feel you and your fellow students require more protection, find the right people in the school community to get clearer guidelines on what is and is not permitted and who in the administration students can turn to if they’re being exploited.
Linda Galeazzi
Author: Linda Galeazzi
Linda Galeazzi has been an online writer and proof reader for several years.
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