Human resources professionals sour on unpaid internships: Survey

Many interns performing work of paid employees
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/07/2014

Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of HR professionals in Ontario feel unpaid internships that are not part of an educational or training program should be illegal, according to a Pulse Survey conducted by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in partnership with Canadian HR Reporter.

Internships should not be considered free labour, according to John Breakey, CEO of Fivel, a Mississauga, Ont.-based technology adoption learning company with 15 employees.

“I’m not really keen on unpaid people, I think it abuses the opportunity,” he said. “You have to be careful as corporations not to abuse the privilege and the opportunity, just from a fairness perspective. Oftentimes, an intern has some level of living expenses and so (employers) shouldn’t treat them as if they’re outside the employment environment.”

It seems like when times get tough, people think internships are a chance for free labour, said Michelle Baily, vice-president of human resources at Resound in Toronto, a not-for-profit music licensing company with 48 employees.

“From everything I’ve looked at, there is no exemption under the employment standards act for non-paying unless it’s through an educational program. So I already think they are illegal, but clarity needs to be made on that.”

But making unpaid internships illegal would limit young people, especially in the non-profit world, said Sandra Watt, chief of organizational development at Thrive Group, a non-profit umbrella group providing services to people with unique needs. It has about 600 employees.

“You limit young people from getting employment experience if the law is going to say we cannot do it… that law would shortchange those young people.”

The whole argument is much more about the ethics of an employer, she said.

“Employers are going to abuse interns whether they’re paid or unpaid. In fact, they’re going to abuse volunteers and their paid workers if it’s an ethics issue,” said Watt. “One way or another, if you take a firm stand on this, you’re going to close doors on a certain population of young people looking for work experience.”

Who benefits?

The biggest concerns around the use of unpaid internships is they only benefit the organization, not the individual, according to 32 per cent of respondents, and they displace paid workers (18 per cent).

An internship should be a learning opportunity and employers should be prepared to spend extra time working with these people to teach them and provide them with experience, said Watt.

“It’s a big investment on the employer’s part and employers with internships need to understand that it’s going to take a little more time because this has to be a learning experience, first and foremost, for the intern.”

Internships used to be a way for recent graduates from university programs without co-operative education options to get real experience, said one respondent.

“They were specific, short-term and offered genuine value for both parties. Now, it would seem that many organizations — particularly in media, arts, publishing, advertising and not-for-profits — are using unpaid interns without offering much to the young people. To the untrained eye, many seem very exploitative.”

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of respondents said their interns perform work normally assigned to paid employees. And that’s the idea, said Breakey.

“That’s what you want them to do — you want them to get direct experience.”

But if an intern is doing the same work as the employee sitting beside him, the intern should be paid, said Baily. At Resound, interns are rotated through various departments to gain a good understanding of the business and they are given a $20-per-day stipend to cover commuting and meal expenses, she said.

“Some of it is performing work but it’s not displacing workers, it’s not free labour,” she said. “It’s a balance, so it’s giving them a cross-section of what it is that we do by actually doing the work. There’s some job shadowing, there’s some actual performing of the tasks.”

To pay or not to pay

About one-quarter (27 per cent) of respondents said they offer paid internships, found the Pulse Survey of 611 people. Twelve per cent offer unpaid internships, 24 per cent offer a mix of paid and unpaid internships and 30 per cent don’t offer internships.

Among the unpaid internships, 66 per cent are part of an educational or training program.

“Both the universities and the colleges over the last 20 years have really advanced their co-op programs from what used to be a two-week event to one month to now sometimes six months, and I think those are great,” said Breakey.

“The integration of business and education is important. Businesses have to participate in the whole education system and the intern environment is a great mechanism to do that — as long as we’re not abusing the people.”

The internships at Durham College are unpaid, according to Tony Sutherland, professor of music business management in Oshawa, Ont.

“In rare instances, employers will offer students work and a salary that is outside the realm of the internship. In the last two years, and through the guidance of our advisory committee, we have encouraged employers to give students an honorarium for travel and lunch.”

A lot of the negative media coverage has been around non-educational internships, which there’s no place for, said Baily. But as part of a formal educational program, they are invaluable. Many people call her up, keen to break into the music industry, but unless the internship is through an educational program, she refuses.

“I say, ‘Sorry, you’re being taken advantage of if anybody’s offering that. If I have a position, I’ll hire you but I’m not bringing you in to work for me for free.’”

But employers are more likely to take a risk by hiring people with no experience if they are not being paid, said one respondent.

“I got my foot in the door at my current organization because of an unpaid internship. They can be an excellent way to start networking and displaying your skills… That being said, I think the length of time that someone can be an unpaid intern should be limited by law, that once employers ‘try out’ the new employee, they are forced to hire them into a paid position… that would make the agreement mutually beneficial.”

Changing the law

In December, Ontario’s minister of labour tabled the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, which would amend existing statues to incorporate better protections for unpaid and precarious workers. The bill includes an amendment to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) that would change the definition of “worker” to include interns and co-op students.

Fifty-nine per cent of respondents agreed the Ontario government should change the existing laws on unpaid internships, while one-quarter were unsure and 16 per cent said the legislation should stay the same.

Current workplace legislation only covers employees and an intern is not considered an employee, said Sutherland.

“Unless there is a solid agreement between the academic institution and the employer, the students risk being treated unfairly without a recourse mechanism. Especially for schools who do not properly oversee their student’s internship activities, there should be a governmental decree that outlines minimum standards for the vulnerable.”

Students are susceptible to being taken advantage of because they want to do anything they can to get work-related experience, said Baily.

“We’ve got to be very careful and have all of the controls in place,” she said. “Certainly some legislation is required because… there needs to be some clarity on (workplace safety) insurance and there needs to be clarity on reasonable compensation.”

It makes sense to create some basic standards, said Breakey. However, interns should not be eligible for the full stature of a full-time employee, with benefits, for example, he said.

“If they make the legislation equal to an employee, that’s going too far to the other side, it’ll deflect people from maybe taking on interns, so I think there’s a middle ground where they at least get a reasonable compensation for their expenses.”

There needs to be a careful balance, said one respondent.

“Setting too onerous a policy on unpaid internships can create a disincentive to using what could be an avenue to allow new people and new ideas into an organization. Conversely, over-reliance on unpaid internships structurally disadvantages certain groups over others and can potentially create two-tiered labour markets.”

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