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The end of the unpaid intern?

Lawsuits could kill valuable programs that serve as launching pads for young talent

By Todd Humber

This may not be an apt metaphor for the dog days of summer, but the snowball of unpaid interns launching lawsuits is turning into an avalanche.

Yesterday, the Toronto Star featured an article about Jainna Patel, a woman who filed a federal labour complaint against Bell Mobility. Patel spent five weeks working unpaid in the company’s Professional Management Program (PMP) in Mississauga, Ont.

Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) told Bell to either pay Patel or contest her complaint.

A spokesperson for Bell told the Star the program is legal and one of the best internships in the country.

But the legality of such programs isn’t always black-and-white and even the best internships can still draw the ire of workers fed up with not being paid for what they consider to be valuable work.

Last month, Claudine Kapel, our excellent compensation blogger, tackled the issue of unpaid interns in her column. She pointed out that the University of Toronto’s Student Union has been sounding the alarm over unpaid internships.

“In a recent letter to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, the U of T Students’ Union suggests that across Canada each year, more than 300,000 students and young workers are ‘illegally misclassified’ as interns, trainees and non-employees,” Kapel wrote.

South of the border, lawsuits are hitting the courts with increasing frequency, and experts predict a “wave of lawsuits” in the United States over unpaid internships, as Canadian HR Reporter noted in an online story from Reuters last month.

A sampling:

•Two former interns at the New Yorker and W Magazine sued Condé Nast Publications.

•A judge found Fox Searchlight Pictures violated labour laws when it used unpaid interns for menial production tasks on Black Swan, a film from 2010 starting Natalie Portman.

In 2011, Lauren Friese, founder of Toronto-based TalentEgg, a job site and career resource for students and new grads, wrote a guest commentary in Canadian HR Reporter about the moral and business questions involved in using interns.

She said the debate shouldn’t be about whether an internship is paid or unpaid, but rather whether a fair trade is occurring.

“In many cases, a fair trade will include monetary compensation,” Friese wrote. “In other cases, the intern will be performing work for the company that is only marginally beneficial to the company, or even experimental, but the intern will be gaining high-quality, practical work experience. That is also a fair trade.”

My internship

An unpaid internship certainly helped kick-start my career as a journalist. It was part of my post-secondary education in journalism, an eight-week placement at the Sentinel-Review, the daily newspaper that serves Woodstock, Ont., and the surrounding area.

I cut my teeth at that newspaper, learning a great deal from the managing editor, city editor and rest of the staff about the world of reporting and what makes a great story.

My unpaid internship turned into a full-time position with the Sentinel-Review. I didn’t stay long, because greener pastures beckoned, but there’s no way I could have landed a paying gig with the Sentinel-Review without the exposure the internship gave me.

Many professionals can tell a similar tale. Internships can give you much-needed experience and that big break you need to get your foot in the door.

But if a few misguided employers are leaning on interns to do work that would normally be performed by paid staff, it could destroy that stepping stone.

There’s enough evidence out there that young workers are getting fed up with working for free and not finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a tough economy, and unemployment among young workers remains stubbornly high — 13.8 per cent in June for workers under the age of 24 versus 7.1 per cent for the entire working population.

It’s difficult to blame frustrated interns for lashing out at their employers, seeking a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

But the problem is that employers could be frightened away from offering valuable internships for fear they could be exposing themselves to lawsuits and liability.

That would destroy a valuable stepping stone that has launched the careers of millions of professionals.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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