When Vancouver's Fairmount Waterfront Hotel advertised last month for an intern to bus tables, labour groups and media commentators questioned if unpaid internships are exploitative.
As the number of internships available in Canada rises, it's critical to look at how governments protect youth in the transition from school to work, says Andrew Langille, a Toronto lawyer specializing in youth and workplace law.
Langille says the gaps in the laws for interns are larger than just exclusions from minimum wage, and he says that legislation across the country needs to change or be be updated.
“Not being paid is one thing, but if somebody suffers physical or psychological harm in a workplace, particularly physical, and if they are injured, these can be very life-changing situations,” Langille says.
Langille estimates that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 internship positions available across Canada, in every sector from education to marketing to architecture, and he says the number is growing.
Patchwork of legislation
One of the problems with regulating internships in Canada is that most are regulated at the provincial level, and as a result, standards differ across the country.
Provincial labour regulations include minimum wage protections, maximum hours of work and safeguards against hazards in the workplace, but few mention internships.
Employment standards codes are in place to establish minimum rights and protections for workers. They regulate maximum hours of work to ensure employees are protected against fatigue, but automatically exclude internships that are part of an academic program.
"None of the regulations that have to do with internships anywhere in Canada have any mention of number of hours. We don’t have any hours per week or limit on how much interns can work, which in my view is problematic," says Claire Seaborn, a law student who established the Canadian Intern Association.
Depending on where an internship is completed, the intern may or may not be covered by workers compensation boards (WCBs) in case of workplace accidents.
For example, WCBs in New Brunswick and B.C. cover unpaid interns, but those in Saskatchewan and Manitoba do not.
In some provinces, such as Alberta, unpaid internships not affiliated with an academic institution are illegal. In provinces such as B.C. and Ontario, however, unpaid internships can be legal even if the internship is not through an academic institution.
‘A coordinated effort would be fantastic’
There's a patchwork of legislation and it ends up confusing both employers and interns, who may not know or understand their rights, Seaborn says.
NDP MP Andrew Cash wants to introduce a private member's bill to compel the federal government to engage in conversation with the provinces to create a more coherent and clear law on unpaid internships.
"A coordinated effort would be fantastic," Seaborn says.
She says she had a very positive experience herself during her internship at the Ministry of the Attorney General in Toronto, but she says too often, internships can be exploitative.
"There's a ton of academic internships that are very positive and have educational components and are worth the tuition and contribute to a degree,” she says.
"But I can't tell you how many emails I receive saying, 'My film degree is requiring me to do an unpaid internship and all I'm doing is lifting camera equipment.'"
Another problem is that even when the rules are clearly stated, there isn't enough enforcement, Seaborn says.
"That's the biggest problem across the country and in Ontario and B.C. in particular."
Having strong laws on the books is not good enough if they are not enforced, Langille says.
In provinces such as Alberta or P.E.I., the ministry of labour will review an internship only after a violation complaint.
Langille says that’s insufficient.
“It’s not really enough for the ministry of labour to say, ‘We accept complaints from interns,’” Langille says. He feels that in that scenario, the government is shifting the responsibility of enforcing the law to the person with the least amount of power in the situation: the intern.
Another problem with the current system is that it's difficult for interns to speak out, Seaborn explains.
"Their greatest concern is that they don’t have a full-time position right now and they are still looking for work, so they don’t want to do anything that would hurt their chances of securing a job," Seaborn says.
Few statistics available
Seaborn is also concerned about the lack of statistics on Canadian interns.
"We have no statistics on interns in Canada. They don’t exist," Seaborn says, adding that the Canadian Intern Association is now hosting a survey on their site to gain knowledge of internships in Canada.
Liberal MP Scott Brison is also urging Statistics Canada to start keeping track of the number of unpaid internships in Canada.
Ontario's Minister of Labour, Yasir Naqvi, says he's addressing some of the concerns about internships by including trainees, interns and co-op students under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act "to ensure they have the same rights and protections as all workers."
The ministry is also spending an additional $3 million annually — for a total of $7.5 million — to hire more officers to proactively inspect internships.
"That will double the number of inspectors to ensure that employers are following the rules," Naqvi says.
The funding will go towards hiring 20 new enforcement officers and by 2014-2015, they will be conducting approximately 1,400 inspections annually, Naqvi says.