Unpaid internship crackdown won't ease young jobseekers' suffering

One way or another, students say they’ll continue to suffer even after Thursday’s crackdown against unpaid internships by the Ontario Ministry of Labour — action that led to the shuttering of two internship programs at the popular Canadian magazines Toronto Life and The Walrus.
Lauren Chapman, left, and Chelsea Kostrey, both first-year fashion students at Toronto's Ryerson University, worry that the closure of unpaid internship programs could limit their opportunities to gain more work experience, even if it is for free. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

For labour-rights crusaders seeking to protect Canadian youth from being exploited, it was a victory. For some unpaid keeners grateful for a chance to pad their resumes in a grim job market, it was a shame.

Either way, students say they’ll continue to suffer even after Thursday’s crackdown against unpaid internships by the Ontario Ministry of Labour — action that led to the shuttering of two internship programs at the popular Canadian magazines Toronto Life and The Walrus.

Unpaid internships in Ontario

There are a 6 conditions that must be met in order for an unpaid internship not to be in breach of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act:

  1. The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  3. The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  5. The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  7. Your training doesn't take someone else's job.
  9. Your employer isn't promising you a job at the end of your training.
  11. You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.

— Source: Ontario Ministry of Labour

“At the end of the day, it’s we who lose,” said Alex, a retail management student at Toronto’s Ryerson University who didn’t want his last name published because he is still applying for jobs in the fashion industry.

“Just saying ‘We have to scrap [unpaid internship programs] right away,’ that’s acting on emotion. It doesn’t help.”

The 30-year-old has interned for free as an assistant to a tailor and also worked unpaid for six months helping to run the Canadian branch of a luxury Italian fashion house.

Both were valuable learning experiences for the aspiring supply chain manager.

“But the only reason I could take them was because I had supplementary income. I live with my family, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t getting any financial support,” he said.

That’s part of the problem with the unpaid internship structure, according to Andrew Langille, a labour lawyer who runs the workplace law website

Raise glass ceiling

Langille hailed the ministry’s announcement and pledge to launch an inspection “blitz” against other industries with unpaid internship programs. He said the internships raise another “glass ceiling.”

He rejected arguments from those who say that the setup is fair because the worker and the company agree to the provision of free labour.

“People ask what’s the harm?” Langille said. “Well, it cuts out people who can’t afford to do unpaid internships; it can [favour] people based on their socioeconomic class. It erodes any notion of meritocracy.”

Second-year business student John Liu said he was encouraged to see the ministry of labour taking action on the matter. But he said he expects things to remain bleak for the current generation desperate to enter the workforce.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, which advocates against the exploitation of interns, poses with NDP MP Andrew Cash. Seaborn was one of six witnesses called to a House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, where she was asked about unpaid internships. (Courtesy Andrew Attfield)

In his first year at York University, Liu, 19, worked once a week for six months at a Canadian brokerage firm, shadowing a company director and helping with filing and researching client portfolios.

“I still think ultimately, work is work, and in our day and age, there are no jobs,” he said at a Ryerson campus café.

“Personally, I think if the work is good, unpaid is totally justified. It can be a very fair opportunity. My resume says ‘internship.’ Nobody ever asks me 'was it paid?' They just want to know what did you do?”

Lauren Chapman and Chelsea Kostrey, first-year fashion communications students at Ryerson, are required to log 400 internship hours over the course of their four-year program.  Both students have considered pursuing unpaid internships, but they worry about companies in their industry closing internship programs to avoid breaching labour rules that are now being enforced.

'It still sucks'

'Personally, I think if the work is good, unpaid is totally justified- John Liu, second-year business student

“It still sucks. I just don’t think the same amount of people will hire the same amount of people,” Chapman said. “We want the experience in the industry, but now it’s like it would just be a bonus if we could get paid.”

That’s become an accepted norm that Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, is hoping will change. She’s optimistic that Ontario’s clampdown on violations against the province’s Employment Standards Act could have a ripple effect.

“British Columbia’s laws are already very strong. I’m cautiously optimistic they’ll follow Ontario’s lead and put some more enforcement into this,” the 25-year-old University of Ottawa law student said.

John Liu, a 19-year-old business student, interned unpaid once a week for six months last year. He found the experience rewarding and said unpaid opportunities are sometimes necessary, particularly in a bleak youth labour market. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Seaborn, who completed two unpaid internships herself, understands the concerns of young people desperate for any opportunity to get a foothold in the labour market.

“I can see why somebody would choose to take an unpaid internship, which is why we don’t discourage them from taking them,” she said. “We discourage the companies from offering them because the burden should be on the employers…to enforce the laws.”

Rather than “stomping their feet” and all-out disbanding their internship programs, Seaborn said Toronto Life and The Walrus could simply satisfy the Employment Standards Act by offering minimum wage.

“How much does it really cost to pay five interns the minimum wage? It’s not an expensive endeavour, if you wanted to do the math on how much senior staff make,” she said.

Josh Mandryk, the 25-year-old co-chair of a Toronto organization called Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams, agrees that “proactive enforcement” could eventually change how companies structure their internship programs. Mandryk foresees more unpaid interns becoming emboldened to file grievances with the government to recoup wages they feel they deserve.

“I imagine some of these folks will be filing complaints now that this announcement has been made, and there’s some good basis for it,” Mandryk said.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour said in a statement Thursday that its inspections of magazine companies are ongoing, and that “pending any appeal, the workers involved have to be paid.”

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.
  • All our interns must be current students who are fulfilling a school requirement.
  • Internships are closely supervised and structured as a valuable learning opportunity.


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