Unpaid internships have been on the firing line for a few years but still haven’t completely disappeared
By Jeffrey R. Smith
Do you work without getting paid? Unless you’re a volunteer for a charity organization, most people would say, ‘No way!’ However, that’s still the case for interns in many cases.
Unpaid internships were the subject of much discussion not too long ago, as the debate over their value as sources of job experience for younger workers versus the appropriateness (or fairness) of employers benefitting from unpaid work raged.
The federal Liberal government seemed to address the issue in the 2017 budget by indicating it planned to implement strict rules regarding internships: Federally regulated employers would no longer be able to employ interns without paying them — with the exception of student placements for courses that were part of recognized educational and training programs. As such, interns would be treated like regular employees and be subject to the same protections under employment standards legislation.
However, this has been delayed because of problems with consultations and protests by labour groups over a proposal that would still allow interns to work without pay for four months full-time or up to one year part-time. Now, the government plans to hold consultations this fall with the intention of releasing final regulations sometime in 2019.
So, unpaid internships are not technically permitted for federally regulated employers, but they’re not exactly outlawed yet as well. The provincial landscape is a bit different and it depends on the specific jurisdiction. For example, in Ontario, interns are subject to the provincial Employment Standards Act, 2000 — meaning they must be paid for work performed — with exceptions such as internships that are part of vocational training, the work performed benefits the intern, and the intern is not displacing existing employees.
Unpaid internships have been a tradition in several industries and they’re often looked upon as a way for workers to gain valuable experience. However, employers may have benefitted a little too much from the work interns perform, and interns are usually in a vulnerable position where if they rock the boat, they’re gone. Without employment standards protections, interns can be let go without consequences and they’re the ones that lose out on possible job and networking opportunities.
In addition, one of the fundamental principles of employment standards is this — employees receive compensation for work performed. In the case of an unpaid intern, work is being performed for no compensation. The argument that the experience gained in an internship can be valuable and help a worker towards is legitimate — and internships that are part of vocational or educational program are and will likely remain legal and students often have assistance with living expenses — but that doesn’t mean workers aren’t entitled to pay for work. Everyone is entitled to make a living, even if they’re learning on the job.
It’s also fundamental that workers are entitled to work safely, and treating interns like employees provides health and safety protection as well. We don’t want more situations like that of Andy Ferguson, a student at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology radio and TV broadcast program who in 2011 died in a car crash after working an overnight shift as an unpaid intern at a radio station following a morning shift. Or the 21-year-old investment banking intern in the United Kingdom who in 2013 died after working all day and night for three consecutive days.
Interns are people too, as much as other workers are, needing to make a living, be safe at work, and deserving of legal protections. Unpaid interns — unless they involved students as part of their schooling – may be finally joining serfs and slaves in the dustbin of history.