Enforcement action by the Ontario Ministry of Labour has led to the shutdown of unpaid internship programs at two popular magazines — Toronto Life and The Walrus — and the crackdown may not be over.

Following complaints, the ministry carried out inspections at both magazines last December "to determine whether certain publicly posted positions were [Employment Standards Act] compliant," said a government statement.

As a result of those inspections, the ministry issued compliance orders alleging violations of several parts of the act, including minimum wage provisions, holiday pay and vacation pay. It said the interns would have to be paid.

Ontario's Labour Ministry says there are few exceptions to the requirement that interns be subject to the Employment Standards Act. The main exception would be for interns working under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university, and secondary school students working under an authorized work experience program.

Most of the interns at Toronto Life and The Walrus do not fall into those categories, so most have subsequently been told they no longer have positions at the magazines. The magazines say they simply cannot afford to pay their interns. 

"The Ministry of Labour Employment Standards Act inspector has said our four-to-six-month unpaid internships can no longer be offered unless the interns have a formal agreement for a work experience with a vocational school," says a statement published on the website of The Walrus.

The magazine says it is "extremely sorry" that its internship program, which has been running for 10 years, can no longer be offered. It said the program has "assisted many young Ontarians — and Canadians — in bridging the gap from university to paid work and in, many cases, on to stellar careers." Five interns will lose their jobs next week.

At Toronto Life, the internship program has been running for about 20 years. "We thought the socially responsible thing to do was at least to provide a bridge for those young people who want to get into the
magazine world," said Doug Knight, president of St. Joseph Media, which publishes Toronto Life.

Two unpaid interns at Toronto Life are being let go. 

Flashpoint 

Unpaid internships have become a growing flashpoint across the country as businesses of all stripes have been accused of taking advantage of young people desperate for work experience.  

By some estimates, there are as many as 300,000 Canadians working as unpaid interns. Some are working in industries that can ill afford to pay them. Some are working as part of a work-experience program affiliated with an academic institution. Others are working in big, profit-making corporations. 

Earlier this month, an NDP member of the Ontario legislature tabled a private member's bill that would provide more protection for unpaid interns.

Ontario's Labour Ministry said it will be launching an "enforcement blitz" this spring, targeting unpaid internships "across a variety of sectors." It isn't yet clear what sectors the government will target. 

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Full disclosure from CBC:

  • CBC News has an unpaid internship program that runs for six weeks.
  • Our program was established with the support of the Canadian Media Guild union.​
  • Interns must be recommended by the journalism schools with which we have a relationship. Only a limited number of interns are considered and accepted.
  • Internships are closely supervised and structured as a valuable learning opportunity.
  • All our interns must be current students who are fulfilling a school requirement.
With files from The Canadian Press