Overtime demands and steep tuition costs are placing a burden on many of Canada's unpaid student interns, who have little recourse to fix their predicament in an educational system that gives employers and schools most of the power.

Attention turned to the internship programs last week, as CBC's GO Public reported on the sudden death of a 22-year-old Alberta practicum student, Andy Ferguson, who crashed while driving home after being made to work long hours in November 2011. 

Alisha Denomme eagerly embarked on a three-week academic, unpaid internship at a strategic branding company in Hamilton, Ont., while studying graphic design at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont. But the experience quickly soured as Denomme struggled to pay tuition, finance her internship and work the long hours.

Still, Denomme was thrilled when the owners decided to hire her part-time after she completed her internship, compensating her slightly above minimum wage. That excitement quickly turned to dejection when she realized they expected her to put in overtime hours for free.

"I was still getting the same amount of work as when I would come in for the whole week," she says, explaining that she would be given a week's worth of work to do, despite only being paid for two days.

However, Denomme never worked outside the paid hours, despite feeling pressure to complete the extra work.

Overtime problems common

Many university and college programs require students complete a work placement, which can be paid or unpaid depending on what students can secure. These mandatory internships can range from short-term to full-time work over a semester, and schools usually stipulate the amount of hours required to graduate from a program.

'Sometimes I was doing 12-hour days just to make ends meet.'—Bre Major, 22-year-old former intern

Claire Seaborn, founder and president of the Canadian Intern Association, says one of the most common complaints she hears from unpaid interns is about overtime hours worked above those mandated by academic institutions.

The third-year law student at the University of Ottawa says she fields many phone calls from students working significantly more than 40 hours a week, including Janina Patel, one of the organization's members who filed a complaint against Bell Mobility. Patel, who worked Bell in Mississauga, Ont., claims she sometimes worked more than 12 hours a day without any compensation. Since Patel shared her story with CBC's Go Public, Seaborn says several other former Bell interns have approached the association with similar complaints.

Andrew Langille, a Toronto lawyer and Osgoode Hall law school graduate student studying youth and workplace law, says it's "common" for unpaid interns to be asked to work more than 44 hours a week. He estimates law and medical students face the greatest time demands, which can easily exceed 60-hour work weeks. While a law student, Langille worked between 50 and 60 hours a week at a legal clinic for a semester without pay.

Seaborn agrees law students can face extraordinary overtime demands, especially those interested in niche areas such as criminal, family or immigration and refugee law.

Some of her peers have worked for lawyers to complete their 125-hour practicum requirements for school, she said, but "then they end up working for that lawyer for another 200 hours on top of that and don't receive any compensation."

Tuition fees add to financial woes

Seaborn admits some academic internships can be positive experiences. But she is concerned that internships lasting more than 125 hours can cause too much financial strain, especially since students frequently continue paying tuition during placements.

Bre Major of Toronto was shocked to learn she would have to pay tuition during her final semester of a three-year media arts program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. The last four months she did not attend any classes, but completed a 12-week unpaid field placement. During that final year, she still paid the college nearly $10,000 in tuition fees — the same amount as during her first two years, when she carried a full course load for two semesters.

"It was hell, and I'm still feeling it right now," says Major, who has just started making small payments toward student debt she acquired while studying and interning.

During the internship, now 22-year-old Major struggled to pay tuition, rent, utilities, and basic food and clothing costs. It became increasingly difficult to pay for transportation to her workplace and cover her cellphone bill, which doubled as her work phone.

For four months, Major says she felt like she was living at the poverty line and sought out about 20 hours a week of freelance videographer work to supplement her loan money.

"Sometimes I was doing 12-hour days just to make ends meet," she says.

Unpaid interns often have to juggle a second, paying job, says Seaborn, adding it is "probably the most frequent thing we hear about."

Little legal recourse for overtime complaints

Schools regularly boast that the work placements offer students practical experience and professional networking, giving them a so-called foot-in-the-door of a competitive labour market.

'If you don't adhere to the whims of the employer, it can impact if you graduate or not.'—Andrew Langille, lawyer

Many colleges and universities have internship co-ordinators to oversee these programs. They tend to argue that schools strictly monitor academic internships, so companies do not take advantage of students, who are there to learn.

But the power imbalance between an unpaid intern and corporation strongly tilts toward the employer, says Langille, making students reluctant to approach their school administration with any overtime or payment concerns.

"If you don't adhere to the whims of the employer, it can impact if you graduate or not," he says, citing troubling cases where employers suggest to school administrators that students who have refused to work overtime or complained about wages should be failed for lack of co-operation. "That's a huge power imbalance."

Even if students want to complain about overtime hours, they don't have a proper avenue for doing so, he says, because unpaid student interns are not covered under provincial and territorial employment standards acts.

While students can file complaints against employers to fight for minimum wage compensation, one of Seaborn's biggest struggles is trying to convince the students who contact her association to do so. She says "it's an uphill battle," because many students are concerned about their future careers in the industry and often want to secure a job before speaking publicly about a negative internship experience.

Students doubly losing

For now, students seem stuck in a system where they are "doubly losing," says Seaborn. Students pay tuition to schools and provide free labour for companies, she says, going into debt while benefiting everyone but themselves.

She hopes the federal government will amend labour laws soon to include oversight for unpaid student interns and wants to see better enforcement of provincial and territorial labour codes. While the Canadian Intern Association continues to lobby for unpaid interns and drums up support within government, many students are left in situations similar to Major's: indebted and without the future employment they hoped to gain from unpaid work experience.

"I was depending on this company to give me that leg up," says Major, who is continuing to freelance. "I'm not any further than when I started."

Corrections

  • After publication, Alisha Denomme clarified that during her unpaid internship, her employers did not require her to take work home. During her paid employment, Denomme said she did not work unpaid overtime despite feeling pressured to do so. This story has been updated.
    Sep 11, 2013 10:12 PM ET