Time for clarity in Canada’s internship culture, NDP MP says

Matthew Coutts
Time for clarity in Canada’s internship culture, NDP MP says

It seems like a good idea – taking an unpaid internship to break into the workforce, earn valuable experience and make contacts. But working for free is no guarantee. Sometimes you get lucky and an internship translates into something bigger. Other times, it is the beginning of an internship wormhole that leads back to more unpaid labour.

Some estimates place the number of young Canadians working in free internships between 100,000 and 300,000 – those are young workers, often fresh out of school looking to enter the job market.

NDP MP Andrew Cash says something must be done to offer clarity and certainty to our internship culture, suggesting the federal government should play a role in ensuring companies and organizations don’t abuse internship programs.

“When you think of young people doing five, six, seven unpaid internships, a generation ago those would have been five, six, seven entry level, minimum wage positions,” Cash told Yahoo! Canada News.

“You tack on, on average, $28,000 of student debt and then you are asking young people to work in serial unpaid positions with the dangled hope of a job at the end of it. What recourse does a young person have?”

The official rate of youth unemployment hovers around 15 per cent on any particular week. But the unofficial rate, Cash says, can be much higher. Factor in part-time employment, sporadic contract work and unpaid internships and the unemployment rate in Toronto can reach 50 per cent.

[ Related: Interns face patchwork of rules, even on Parliament Hill ]

It’s not much better elsewhere, and there is little oversight to ensure internship programs are run properly. Cash says he is supportive of legitimate internship program or co-ops that give students practical job experience, but is concerned the system can be misused.

“There is a real hodge podge of rules across the country,” Cash said. “Each province has either specifically defined what an internship is and what it isn’t, when it is allowable, and then there are provinces that don’t have anything on the books.”

The role of internships is not spelled out on a federal level. In fact, the Labour Code doesn’t mention interns in any capacity. A spokesperson for Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told CBC News the code does protect the employee’s right to fair wages, and allows them to file complaint for unpaid work.

The provinces of Quebec, B.C. and Ontario have strongly defined internship mandates, which essentially state that internships must be education-based programs that provide the intern with valuable experience, without interfering with the status of actual employees.

[ Pulse of Canada: Unpaid internships: Valuable experience or free labour? ]

Ontario’s regulations include six key points to justify an internship. The program must benefit the intern, doesn't affect someone else's paid employment and the intern must understand that a paid position is not being promised at the end.

The entirety of the rules make it clear that the focus is on offering the intern experience and benefiting the employer minimally.

Recently, accusations came forward that Bell Mobility has misused their internship program. Two former interns have made formal complaints that they were used as menial labourers and derived no practical experience from the internship.

Cash said it is cases like those that would benefit from stronger internship rules and more clearly-defined directives – which is the focus of a bill he plans to raise when the House of Commons returns in the fall.

“We need better enforcement of the rules that are already there, we need the federal government’s rules on unpaid internships to be clarified.… They need attention, and we need to give them that attention. This is the workforce of the future and we are really not treating them very well at all right now.”