Unpaid Interns: Rite of Passage or a Pass on Rights?
Being misled, exploited, harassed, overworked, disrespected, and ignored are just some of the complaints the Canadian Intern Association hears from unpaid interns across the country on a regular basis.
There is a “huge power imbalance” inherent in the employer-intern relationship, says association founder Claire Seaborn, which stops many interns from speaking out about mistreatment.
“I get e-mails from interns all the time explaining what their situation is,” says Seaborn. “The problem is that, by and large, they want to remain anonymous because they don’t want to tarnish their reputation in the industry or with their employer.”
Seaborn, a law student at the University of Ottawa, founded the Canadian Intern Association last year after discovering that “a lot” of her peers were working illegal or illegitimate internships, and realizing they had few advocates to fight for their rights.
Many unpaid interns do not realize the rights they are entitled to, or how to access them without losing their job, she says.
Considered by many to be a rite of passage, unpaid internships have long been a path of opportunity for students and recent grads seeking to get a foot in the door of prominent industries such as entertainment and publishing.
However, unpaid internships have drawn controversy in recent years because of their vulnerability to exploitation, fuelled in part by fallout from the 2008 recession, which left many employers scrambling to cut costs.
High youth unemployment rates also suggest that unpaid internships do not automatically lead to paid work afterward, as was once the norm.
Though some employers seem to sincerely misunderstand what entails a legitimate internship, others appear to be deliberately bending the labour rules in their own favour, says Seaborn.
A case in point is Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, which last week was widely criticized on social media for advertising an unpaid “bus person” internship. Based on the hotel’s advertisements, it appeared that the interns would be doing the same cleaning and customer service tasks as regular staff members and could even be replacing paid employees.
The internship is technically considered legal, however, because it can be done as part of an academic program for credit.
This grey area is part of the problem in Canada, says Seaborn—internships for credit are not monitored closely to ensure they are providing educational value, which can easily translate into free labour for the employer.
“A lot of interns complain that their employer promised one thing out of an internship at the beginning, [such as] it’s going to be a really great educational experience … when in fact it ends up being really menial tasks where they didn’t learn very much,” she says.
Sometimes a bad internship can also mean too much responsibility, adds Seaborn, with interns performing valuable and challenging work for free, the employer’s aim being to displace paid employees.
Toronto-based lawyer Andrew Langille, who has researched unpaid labour among youth markets, estimates there are between 100,000 and 300,000 unpaid interns in Canada. Seaborn says around 75 percent of those are female.
Rules surrounding internships are made more confusing because employment regulation is a provincial responsibility. Each province has its own employment standards legislation and regulations that may apply to interns but don’t directly address the issue of unpaid internships.
Where relevant laws do exist, governments are often not doing enough to enforce them or seeking stricter guidelines, notes Seaborn.
“A lot of provinces need to amend their employment standards legislation—particular provisions for interns that make it really, really clear to employers that you need to pay your intern unless it’s an academic program,” she says.
“The next thing is universities and colleges need to take a much better approach at regulating and closely watching internships that are for credit.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Federal MPs Andrew Cash and Scott Brison have also spoken out in favour of clearer regulations for unpaid internships. Cash plans to introduce a private member’s bill calling for tougher federal laws, while Brison is calling for better tracking of the problem.
The Alberta government recently announced a review of post-secondary practicum programs following the death of Andy Ferguson, an Edmonton student who was killed in a head-on collision in 2011 after working consecutive overnight shifts as an intern at the Bear and Virgin Radio station.
Ferguson was in the radio and TV broadcast program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and was working as both a paid employee and unpaid intern to fulfill mandatory work experience to graduate. His family alleges Ferguson was under pressure to work excessive hours and was harassed and mistreated by other staff at the station.
The case of 21-year-old German intern Moritz Erhardt, who collapsed and died in the U.K. last month during what has been described as a gruelling internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, sparked a debate around ethical internships and corporate culture.
Recent successful legal challenges in Canada and the U.S. have led a growing number of interns in both countries to begin speaking out about their mistreatment and, in some cases, receiving back pay.
In a landmark U.S. case in June, a judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures should have paid two interns on the set of award-winning film “Black Swan” because their work essentially displaced regular employees and did not entail meaningful education or training.
At least six similar U.S. lawsuits have since been filed in intern-heavy fields such as fashion, sports, television, and modelling.
In Canada, former Bell Mobility intern Jainna Patel filed a federal labour complaint against the company in June after spending five weeks in its Professional Management Program in Mississauga. Patel says interns were made to work long hours at menial jobs and were intimated by management when they objected.
Human Resources Development Canada ordered Bell to either pay Patel’s back wages or contest the complaint she filed.
In 2011 former intern Kyle Iannuzzi also filed a complaint with Ontario authorities against his former employer, event planning company Platinum Events Group, and won. The owner was forced to pay him $959.40 in back pay.
In addition, organizations that have been exposed by the Canadian Interns Association for not paying interns—such as Hootsuite and the Vancouver Fringe Festival—have reversed their policies or reimbursed former interns.
According to the federal government, there are adequate mechanisms in place to protect unpaid interns under the labour program.
“Any employee, or representative of an employee, who believes that basic entitlements have not been respected may bring the matter to the Labour Program, which will investigate and take action if a violation is found,” said an email from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
“If it is determined that an employer/employee relationship exists between students/interns and the employer, their rights will be protected as an employee.”
Unpaid Internship Criteria
The Canadian Association of Career Educators & Employers recommends that an unpaid internship be considered legitimate only if it meets the following criteria:
1. The training is similar to field-specific or applied training that can be found at a post secondary institution.
2. The training is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The organization providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
4. The intern does not displace employees of the organization providing the training.
5. The intern is not accorded a right to become an employee of the organization providing the training.
6. The intern is advised that he or she will receive no remuneration for the time that he or she spends in training.
7. The skills and/or experience gained must be transferable to other employment settings.
8. There are clearly defined and articulated learning outcomes for the intern to realize by the conclusion of the internship.
9. Regular supervision is given by a professional pertinent to the internship.
10. Internships must be for a defined period of time.
Source: Canadian Association of Career Educators & Employers