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Unpaid interns: the hidden workers of Canada’s legal system

Early one November morning in 2011, 22-year-old Edmonton, Alberta student Andy Ferguson was driving home after completing a night shift at a local radio station where he worked as an unpaid intern. Presumed to have been too tired to drive, he crossed over the centre line and entered into a fatal head-on collision with a gravel truck.

There are many people who believe that Ferguson’s death could have been avoided. On the day of his death, he had already worked a morning shift and had not wanted to take the night shift as it would have meant working 16 hours that day on top of going to his classes. But his employer had told him that he wouldn’t receive the credit he needed from the internship to graduate if he refused.

It was a dilemma that ended in tragedy.

Intern positions come in many forms in Canada. Paid or unpaid, they are most often filled with students or recent graduates as practicum for their academic programs or a means to get a leg up in the industry of their choice. Conditions vary widely around the country and many do not receive financial remuneration or even the offer of a job position for their work.

In fact, it is becoming more common for unpaid internships to be a prerequisite for actual paid positions. This makes it difficult for young workers who are financially unable to work for free and gives a stage for employers to abuse unpaid positions.

While not many end in extreme outcomes like Ferguson’s, the situations of unpaid interns in Canada are becoming a more prominent issue in the minds of Canadians. And it’s stories such as Ferguson’s that are driving important discussions about them.

Laurin Liu, an MP for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, was inspired into action by Ferguson’s story. On June 16 of this year she tabled Bill C-620 in the House of Commons, which decried the state of internships in Canada and demanded that, whether interns are paid or unpaid, they receive the same protections as paid employees. It is the first bill of its kind.

“[Ferguson’s death] was a wake-up call for us to create protection that would help unpaid interns and essentially let them put limits on the amounts of hours that they could work for an employer and have intern protection that Andy Ferguson didn’t have at the time,” Liu said.

The safeguards outlined in the bill include protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, the right to refuse dangerous work and a limit on the number of hours an intern would work. Essentially, it will insure that employers aren’t using unpaid interns as a form of free labour.

“The bill stipulates that unpaid interns that are working for employers have to derive a substantial benefit from the internship,” said Liu. “We’ve seen employers force interns or oblige interns to work excessive hours; we’ve seen employers replace employees with unpaid interns and various other abuses of unpaid interns.”

The bill, formally called “An Act to Amend the Canada Labour Code (Training without Remuneration)” and shortened to “The Intern Protection Act,” will be debated late this fall or early winter.

It seeks to fill a gap in the Canada Labour Code, which has no stipulations for unpaid internships. Unfortunately, because employment standards for most job sectors are set out at the provincial level, the Intern Protection Act is limited in its scope of providing protection across a wide variety of industries.

“Right now in Canada there is a patchwork of different protections for interns,” said Liu. “The nature of jurisdiction in Canada is provinces have jurisdiction over labour and so this bill would only affect sectors that are federally regulated.”

Federally regulated sectors include telecommunications, transport and banking.

Despite this, Bill C-620 will affect a considerable portion of the population. While there are no official statistics on internships in Canada — a gap in data that further reinforces that the issue exists — estimates on the amount of interns range between 100,000 and 300,000.

These numbers are far too high for Liu, herself only 23 years old, who has personally seen the effects of unpaid internships.

“It’s a big problem. It does affect a wide part of the population. It’s shocking to see how many of my peers who graduated recently are unable to find paid work upon graduating from university,” she said.

One of the 300,000 was Kayla Perry, a third-year communications student at Laurentian University. In the spring of 2013 she completed an internship at a daily newspaper called the Sudbury Star, working as a reporter. Hers was a positive experience.

“Honestly, I loved my time at the Star. I definitely learned a lot during my time [there] — working at a daily looks great on a resume and the staff worked closely with me whenever I needed help or had questions, so I appreciated that,” she said.

But Perry is aware that not all interns are as lucky as she.

“To be honest, at the time I accepted the internship I think I was a bit young and naive. I was so motivated to be a journalist and enjoyed reporting so much that I was actually grateful to be working at the Star — I thought I owed the company rather than the company owing me for a month of free, full-time work,” Perry said.

“Although I was lucky enough to be in a financial place where I did not need the compensation at the time, that certainly doesn’t mean my working for free was right, or even legal,” said Perry. “Had I required a source of income, I would have had to take another full-time job to work in the evenings, which many of my friends have had to do.”

Anne Soucy, the director of UNB’s Career Development and Employment Centre, said that this division of those who can and can’t afford an unpaid internship is only another negative result of them.

“I think sometimes it’s not fair because it’s the students whose parents can afford to support them. It’s a bit of an elitist program because a lot of people just can’t afford to do [an internship] and so it’s setting almost a two-tiered opportunity for people who have money and those who don’t have money,” she said.

But internships can have their place and Soucy is quick to speak to this.

“You’ve got that practical experience plus a current reference from an organization and somebody in your field; it’s an advantage, definitely,” she said.

In order for this to work, however, Soucy said there has to be guidelines.

“Students should be thinking about what [they] want to gain out of this internship and have a mentor or someone within the organization that can provide feedback, because you don’t want to just be dumped into an organization and you want to have a good learning experience as well,” she said.

Beatrice Britneff, a master’s student at Carleton University who is well-versed in the issue, having completed three unpaid internships herself, agrees.

“Unpaid internships should be approved by the student’s college or university and that they should provide the student with skills that will increase their job prospects after they graduate,” she said.

Back on Parliament Hill, Bill C-620 is still awaiting the debate stage. Already there are people who are considering its repercussions.

Some worry that the Intern Protection Act will force companies to end their internship programs, barring new entrees of the industry from receiving the training and experience they need to get a paid fulltime position.

“I’m almost tempted to say I’m not sure the bill is great for young journalists because the creation of the bill forces many huge publications to dissolve their internship positions,” said Perry. “Ideally, in a perfect world, there would still be internships, but they would be compensated — no one should be asked to work for free.”

For others though, it’s more about recognition that unpaid interns have been stuck outside the borders of federal jurisdiction. Should the bill become a law, interns will for the first time receive status in federal law.

To Britneff, it will mean finally receiving a sense of worth for her work.

“I think that unpaid internships are valuable … but to a certain extent. I think short-term unpaid internships have a lot to offer students, the most obvious being that they allow you to acquire skills that you’ll need later on when you’re applying for more competitive jobs,” she said.

“But I think there needs to be a cut-off. I think anything beyond two months unpaid is exploitation. It honestly has an effect on your self-esteem and dignity if someone tells you that the work you do isn’t worth something.”

New Brunswick is currently lacking in employment standards regulations when it comes to internships as they are not mentioned in the New Brunswick Employment Standards Act.

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