Interns would be granted federal workplace protections under NDP bill

An NDP private member's bill to expand the protections and safety provisions of unpaid interns in federally-regulated industries will have its first hour of debate tonight.
Student groups estimate there are 100,000 to 300,000 unpaid interns in Canada at any given time. A bill from an NDP MP would extend workplace protections to unpaid internships in federally-regulated businesses and organizations.

An NDP private member's bill to expand protections and safety provisions for unpaid interns in federally-regulated industries will have its first hour of debate Tuesday night.

Bill C-636, or the Intern Protection Act, was introduced by Quebec MP Laurin Liu last November. The legislation seeks to amend the Canada Labour Code by expanding the definition of "employee" to include unpaid interns.

The bill would also extend to unpaid interns' protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, limits on excessive hours and the right to refuse dangerous work. It would also ensure internships primarily benefit employees and that it does not replace the role of paid workers.

Liu, along with fellow NDP MP Andrew Cash and Bilan Arte, national deputy chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, held a press conference Tuesday on Parliament Hill.

Cash, who has long called for the government to implement greater protections for unpaid interns, said the act will make life much better for young workers.

"Interns deserve protections and anyone doing the work of a paid employee should be paid," he said. "The Intern Protection Act puts forward basic protections that will finally see federal labour laws begin to catch up with the provinces."

Provinces set labour codes for non-federal workers

Last month it was reported that Cathy McLeod, parliamentary secretary to Labour Minister Kellie Leitch, had met with advocates for interns regarding possible changes to the Canada Labour Code.

The Labour Code only applies to federally-regulated sectors such as banks, telecommunications and most Crown corporations. Other workers' conditions of work are defined by provincial labour ministries.

Claire Seaborn of the Canadian Intern Association said the bill would set a precedent for the provinces to make further improvements.

"Seeing good leadership from the federal government will set an important example for provincial governments as they revise their workplace laws to better protect interns," she said.

Cash told CBC News he has had conversations "on the other side" of the House regarding the bill and has seen "great interest" by Conservative MPs.

Still, Cash said he "expects the unexpected" when it comes to possible opposition to the bill.

"The government seems to be all over the place in terms of this issue."

Briefing notes for Leitch from August to October 2014 indicate that "internships, training and volunteers are generally not considered employees and thus not covered" under the code.

But when Liu’s bill was tabled last June, Leitch was given new talking points for question period that indicated the code covers all employer-employee relationships, including interns.

There has been greater scrutiny on internships after the death of a 22-year-old Edmonton intern in 2011.

Telecommunications giant Bell Mobility terminated its unpaid internship program in August of last year after a former intern filed a labour complaint against the company and attempted to seek back-wages.