Understanding unpaid internships

a/Student Living by

Considering working for free this summer? In a grim labour market, unpaid internships seem to be a bizarre trend that has made life after graduation more even difficult. As internships are part of a grey zone often undefined and unregulated by legal frameworks, it’s important for students to be aware of the potential problems they may encounter in their search for an internship this summer.

Although internships have swiftly become the norm for young people entering the labour force, there is surprisingly little research conducted on the topic; for example, neither Statistics Canada nor Human Resources and Skills Development track statistics for interns, according to a recent article in the Toronto Star.

Andrew Langille, labour lawyer and founder of Youth and Work, a website aiming to spread information to young people about workplace law, said unpaid internships are most common in urban centres that have post-secondary institutions, a mature service sector, and an abundance of young people.

“Montreal has a huge problem with unpaid internships; tens of thousands of young workers are working for free every year,” he said. “The government is doing nothing.”

In much of the legal literature, in fact, internships don’t even share a common definition. A company can call a position an internship whether the employee is paid, unpaid, or receives academic credit for their work.

Unpaid internships, however, are usually the most troublesome for students.

“[An unpaid internship is] an experiential opportunity integrating knowledge gained in the classroom to an employment setting,” a statement from the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers reads. “The student’s work is supervised by a qualified professional and feedback is shared with the student on a regular or ongoing basis.”

Darlene Hnatchuk, director of McGill’s Career Planning Service (CaPS), said unpaid internships are supposed to provide more opportunities for learning than a typical position.

“Employment law varies by province and by territory, but typically any type of work where you are producing for the benefit of the employer or the organization should be paid work,” she said. “It’s about the amount of time you spend learning versus doing.”

If you’re not receiving adequate training or are stuck doing mindless busywork without pay, your internship may not even be legal. Additionally, you may not gain any valuable experience from the position—we’ve all heard the horror stories about interns stuck buying coffee and running errands for their employers.

According to Langille, many problems with unpaid internships stem from the failure of laws to address unpaid work.

“These laws were often written 20 to 30 years ago, when intern culture wasn’t a very big part of the labour market,” he said. “It’s an issue of regulatory failure on the part of the government insofar as they’re not properly regulating the youth labour market [….] This [is a] grey area that isn’t well understood, and the employers have been making full use of it.”

In addition, Langille said the regulatory systems in Canada fail to actively hold employers responsible for their adherence to laws.

“Historically the regulation of employment standards has been voluntary to clients or people having to report their employer, so there hasn’t been a lot of proactive enforcement of employment standards laws across Canada,” Langille said.

Because laws dealing with internships are often unclear, Hnatchuk recommends that students assess potential opportunities before proceeding with the applications. In some fields, such as publishing and advertising, unpaid internships are far more common than in others.

“If you are in a field where it’s critically important to get an internship but they tend to be unpaid, then it’s going to be very important for you to evaluate whether or not the objectives for that internship match your own,” she said. “[You need to] be asking some questions: what kind of training will I be receiving? What type of evaluation supervision will I be receiving? [….] Is there an opportunity later on to be employed?”

If an internship looks like it could be illegal, or you’re unsure whether it matches your career goals, Hnatchuk said students can book an appointment at CaPS to discuss the opportunity.

Langille also emphasized the need for students to educate themselves about their rights before accepting a position.

“If you know your rights going into a situation, you can avoid situations where you’re going to be exploited altogether,” he said. “It’s a way to defend yourself proactively without getting into a big legal fight down the road.”

For improving rights for young workers in the future, Langille said much of the power to create change lies in the hands of the government.

“The federal and provincial governments need to really step up and take a look at this problem, and look at the exclusions that often deny critical protections to young workers,” he said. “Young people really have to put pressure on the government to address the situation of the labour market and to come up with a regulatory model that defends the rights of young people in the workplace.”

  • Amina Moustaqim-Barrette

    AWESOME ARTICLE! I’m running for SSMU VP external this year, and this is exactly one of the issues I want to tackle during my term (see aminaforvpexternal.wordpress.com). As VP external I want to lobby the quebec government to review its labour laws and implement a legal definition of unpaid internships so that employers can be held accountable. Thanks so so much for this (and sorry for the plug) !!!!