While the federal government is trying to decide how to incorporate internships into the Canada Labour Code, an association representing interns and young workers has said it will no longer be part of the conversation.
In early February, the Canadian Intern Association withdrew from the government’s consultation process, saying the current proposals would allow for four-month unpaid internships in some federally regulated sectors.
“We’re having a hard time understanding why there is a need for unpaid work for young people. We hit a wall with them,” said Amy Kishek, the association’s director of government relations.
But labour minister Maryann Mihychuk encouraged those with a stake in internships to continue to participate in the conversation.
“We have to recognize a changing workforce. We’ve been talking about flexible work, and hopefully provinces and businesses will do the same,” she said, adding that changing the fundamentals is key to meaningful change.
“We’re trying to find meaningful jobs for young Canadians who are unfortunately in ‘Mcjobs’, temporary jobs — we need to get them out of their mom’s basements and into the workforce.”
Working interns into the Canada Labour Code — which currently does not address interns at all — is a mandate left over from the previous Conservative government. One part of the changes has already taken place — providing interns with health and safety protections under the law.
In mid-February, the labour ministry announced it would double the Canada Summer Jobs Program, which provides funding to employers to help create summer job opportunities for students.
The Liberals have also committed to earmarking $1.5 billion over four years to create thousands of jobs, internships and apprenticeships under its youth jobs strategy.
Unpaid work not acceptable
Unpaid work should only ever be legal when the employee is offered academic credit or as part of a vocational program training, said Kishek.
“Employers should also make sure that the training they’re offering is meaningful and linked to someone’s broader career goals.”
Unpaid internships are largely illegal in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. The maritime provinces and Saskatchewan guarantee minimum wage to “employees” as defined under provincial law. Alberta allows unpaid internships with an educational component, but the definition of “employee” allows for a loophole in the law, said the association.
Ontario recently changed the Employment Standards Act to effectively outlaw unpaid internships, with a few exceptions, such as training that’s similar to a vocational school, the job being for the benefit of the intern and the employer deriving little to no benefit.
As well, the internship can’t replace another paid position and the employer can’t guarantee it will lead to a paid position. Internships that provide academic credit are also an exception in Ontario.
However, the implementation and enforcement could be improved, said Kishek.
“On the one hand, the Employment Standards Act is clear, but it remains that there are employers in Ontario that hire unpaid interns who aren’t part of an academic program. So what they’re doing is illegal, but there’s no enforcement. There’s no one responsible for finding these postings and following through with these folks.”
An unpaid internship helped Mary Barroll break into her first career.
“Not all my fellow students were as lucky,” said Barroll, president of TalentEgg, a national job site for students and recent graduates. “There lies the problem. Unpaid internships are vulnerable to the exploitation of those who are themselves vulnerable.
TalentEgg only posts internships that are paid or part of an educational program or credit, she said.
Responsible employers should therefore begin investing in younger workers, said Barroll, which will contribute to the future of the organization. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.
“It’s important that young, new hires have manageable and reasonable expectations, particularly during the transition from school to job — and employers know they will play the most important role in making sure that process is achieved smoothly and mutually beneficially,” she said.
Concerns such as high turnover have always been prevalent for industries with a younger labour market — but there are ways to mitigate these pitfalls, she said.
“Employers can encourage employee retention by providing professional development, a collaborative and healthy culture, a comfortable workplace designed to enhance collaboration and team-building, regular and meaningful performance feedback and opportunities for personal growth and advancement for employees.”
One fundamental problem is employers see internships as kind of permanent temporary positions, which fuels the worst parts of the cycle, said Kishek.
“Every few months, you’re cycling through a new set of interns. It would be a lot more valuable for employers to simply pay wages upfront, invest in the individual, then grow them as part of their business model — as opposed to treating them as disposable, free labour.”
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