Internships are only legal in America if the employer is a charity or if the for-profit business offering them is “receiving no benefit” from the intern. In other words, unpaid interns are there to learn, not work for free. The laws are similar in Canada. The Ontario Employment Standards Act says that unless interns are students getting credit for school (or they’re working in an industry not covered by the legislation, like government or charities), the employee must be paid minimum wage. And the rules are pretty much the same coast to coast, says Matthew Cooperwilliams, a labour law professor at the University of British Columbia. Employers must ask themselves whether “the duty could go on either the intern’s desk or the paid person’s desk,” says Cooperwilliams. If the task is the same as what they’d ask a paid worker to do, it’s work that must be paid for.
Why, then, do so many illegal internships slip under the radar? As with illegal or migrant workers, there can be lifelong consequences for complaining, like alienating employers and not being able to get another job. So labour standards officials from Saskatchewan and Alberta say they hear few illegal interns complain. Linda McKay-Panos, executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, also believes many are simply unaware of their rights. She recently put together a handbook for young workers, to educate them.
For employers, the appeal of free labour can be irresistible. It’s hard to miss the irony of the labour-friendly Independent being sued for unpaid wages. (For the record, many large newspapers in Canada do pay interns, as does Maclean’s.) Even the Canadian federal government is guilty of using unpaid labour. Maclean’s spoke with one intern, Martina (not her real name), who worked for a Canadian embassy for several months. “They’d have been screwed without us,” she says, noting that much of her job had been done by a paid employee until recession-time layoffs. Although the job provided valuable experience and contacts, it was a financial stretch to fly to a foreign country, rent a place, buy a transit pass and eat—all on no income. Martina feels guilty her parents could pay her way, providing an opportunity many of her friends can’t afford. So do Laura and Michael, whose parents helped them. But Try says it best: “It’s a moral issue,” he explains, “because it means only those people who can afford to do an unpaid internship can get ahead.”
Not all internships are fraught. Laura’s first internship was a placement with an entertainment management company that trained her in copywriting, databases and video editing. Her boss took the time to review her progress each day. When a job opened up, they offered it to her. Similarly, Michael can’t say enough good things about his unpaid internship at a museum in Toronto. His bosses mentored him throughout. “They were never too busy to help,” he says. He now has a paid job in the field. The difference was that their worthwhile internships were primarily educational.
Alex Try admits there are good internships out there, too, but he doesn’t think graduates should take unpaid work. He points out that the communications firm that hired him into his “first proper job” was impressed by his ability to set up the Interns Anonymous website and manage a media campaign. Potential interns, take note: “What got me the job was not an internship,” says Try. “What got me the job was doing something for myself.”
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