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A good first step towards stopping unpaid internship scams in Ontario

Joshua Mandryk

August 20, 2014

Will Bill 22 help stop unpaid internship scams? Josh Mandryk thinks it could help.

You’re surrounded by them.

They are graphic designers, marketers, social workers, and political staffers.

In the movies, they fetch the boss coffee. In real life, their work probably looks a lot like yours. And if you’re not careful, you might get replaced by one.

They are unpaid interns, and they’re the focus of London West NDP MPP Peggy’s Sattler’s Bill 22, Employment Standards Amendment Act (Greater Protection for Interns and Vulnerable Workers), 2014.

Sattler’s bill is a positive response to the chorus of voices calling on the Ontario government to crackdown on illegal unpaid internship scams. Over the past year, public pressure for action has mounted. Together, groups like the Canadian Intern Association and individuals like youth rights activist Andrew Langille have put the issue on the forefront, while others like Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams, an organization I had the pleasure to represent in supporting Sattler’s bill, have undertaken direct petition and protest actions to call for change.

Introduced earlier this summer, Bill 22 would do the following:

  • Require employers to post an informational poster on interns’ rights in a conspicuous location in the workplace;
  • Require employers to provide interns excluded from the definition of “employee” by s. 1(2) of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) with written notice as to the following:
    • Which parts of the ESA do and do not apply to the intern;
    • How the 6 requirements of s. 1(2) are met with regard to the intern;
    • The terms of the intern’s employment; and
    • The intern’s hours of work.
  • Extend basic workplace protections such as meal breaks, maximum hours of work and vacation without pay to unpaid interns;
  • Introduce a system for third-party and anonymous complaints against employers, in an attempt to address the shortcomings of complaints-based enforcement; and
  • Require employers to notify the Ministry of Labour when they hire an unpaid intern, in order to better track the number of unpaid internships in Ontario.

A previous version of the bill was introduced prior to the spring election by former Davenport MPP Jonah Schein.

Sattler’s bill represents a positive, albeit modest, first step in the right direction. It contains reforms which would enhance employers’ and interns’ knowledge of their legal rights and obligations, make complaints against unpaid internship scammers a more realistic possibility, and give the Ontario government a better sense of the prevalence of unpaid internships in Ontario, which is currently unclear.

These reforms, along with more robust enforcement of the law through inspection blitzes, would be a positive short-term response to the exploitation of unpaid interns in Ontario. Having said that, over the medium-term, the Ontario government must undertake a comprehensive review of all of the laws surrounding unpaid internships, as Sattler’s bill leaves a number of the larger issues unaddressed.

For instance, many employers have proven themselves unable or unwilling to appropriately apply the laws surrounding unpaid internships to their own employment practices. This, combined with the failings of complaints-based enforcement, raises the question of whether Ontario ought to shift towards a permit-based system for employers who wish to hire unpaid workers. Furthermore, Sattler’s bill does not address the full-scale exclusion from minimum wage for all internships run through post-secondary programs. Thus, while a positive first step, the bill is far from a complete solution to the problem of unpaid internships.

Admittedly, the prospects of the third party passing a private members bill in a majority government are slim, but there are good reasons for the Liberal government to get on board with these proposals. First, in substance, Sattler’s bill contains quite measured and moderate reforms. Second, the government has indicated some willingness to tackle this issue earlier this year when it conducted a rather high-profile crackdown on the unpaid internships at Toronto Life and the Walrus, and announced an inspection blitz in June. It’s worth noting, despite Walrus co-editor Shelly Ambrose issuing a statement blaming “the Liberal Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Labour” for shutting down their internship program, the Walrus ultimately hired back their unpaid interns with pay, and my sense is that the Government’s actions were generally well received. The measures in Sattler’s bill would be in line with these actions. Finally, given all of the attention to the issue in recent years, taking action on unpaid internships increasingly appears to be a politically popular move, especially among students and youth.

For all of these reasons, don’t be surprised if the Liberal Government gives serious consideration to the proposals in Bill 22.

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Joshua Mandryk

Practice Areas

Employment Law