Comment: Unpaid internships misused

Colleen Isherwood counts two internships as among her best experiences at Carleton University School of Journalism. These days, it seems some companies are taking advantage of internships as unpaid, non-career-oriented labour.

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

When I was at Carleton University School of Journalism, my program included two weeks of unpaid internship—one at the long-defunct Ottawa Journal and one at the Canadian Government Office of Tourism. I count those two short stints among my best experiences at Carleton—a glimpse of the real work world I was entering.

My unpaid internships were short, and a clearly prescribed part of my education. And when I graduated a few decades ago, jobs for graduates were plentiful. If you didn’t get a job, it was because you didn’t try very hard to get one or because you wanted to take some time off.

These days, unpaid internships are several months in length, and unemployment rates among twenty-somethings are at an all-time high. And, it seems, some companies are taking advantage of internships as unpaid, non-career-oriented labour. A Vancouver luxury hotel was recently taken to task when it advertised a busperson position as an unpaid internship. In Toronto, an intern complained that she was required to clean 16 rooms per day at an airport hotel, just like the paid housekeepers.

While each province has its own set of rules, a look at Ontario’s requirements sheds some light on what does or doesn’t constitute a valid internship.

Ontario’s Employment Standards Act states that all employees must be paid at least the Ontario minimum wage ($10.25 per hour for most employees). An “employee” includes a person who receives training from an employer.  A person is not considered an employee if these six conditions are met:

  • The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school;
  • The training is for the benefit of the individual;
  • The person providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained;
  • The individual does not displace employees of the person providing the training;
  • The individual is not accorded a right to become an employee of the person providing the training; and
  • The individual is advised that he or she will receive no remuneration for the time that he or she spends in training.

“The government has given clearance to employers to offer internships that are unpaid, and programs like ours require work experience,” Dr. David Martin of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality, Ryerson University told CLN.
“Companies are taking full advantage of this. We require 1,000 hours of work experience before students leave the program. It can be volunteer work if they wish, but we would like to see them get paid experience. Ninety per cent of what comes through to us is unpaid internships.

“Some employers want to skirt paying Workers’ Compensation. We sign off on Workers’ Compensation because all of our students are covered by our school insurance, and they know that.

“Why are they doing this when there is a shortage of workers, markets are not great, and students need passion to stay in the industry?

“When students work at a job for nothing, what does that say about the industry as a career instead of just a job? It’s a shame we have got ourselves into that situation,” Martin noted.

When your company hires interns, is it providing them with work closely tied into their field of study? Are you spending quality time mentoring and training them? Or have you fallen into the trap of hiring interns to do work that would normally be done by a paid employee? While such an approach may be understandable in a time of slim margins and economic uncertainty, it isn’t a true internship and it’s not winning industry fans.

—Colleen Isherwood, Editor