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New Campaign Against Unpaid Internships

Christine Davies

November 10, 2013

Christine Davies looks at a new campaign led by Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams

Unpaid internship programs have grown exponentially over the past decade, particularly in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The full extent of unpaid internships in Canada is not clear, but figures of 100,000 to 300,000 unpaid internships taking place in Canada at any time are commonly cited in the media. Many positions which would have once been entry-level jobs are now classified as unpaid internships, including at some major Canadian companies.

In Ontario, unpaid internships are – theoretically anyway – only permitted in narrow circumstances. The Employment Standards Act, 2000 provides a six-part test for determining the legality of an unpaid internship program:

  1. The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the intern (ie, the intern receives some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills);
  3. The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained;
  4. The intern’s training doesn’t take someone else’s job;
  5. The employer isn’t promising the intern a job at the end of your training; and
  6. The intern has been told that he or she will not be paid for their time.

In a number of cases, the Ontario Labour Relations Board has confirmed that individuals working in unpaid internship scams must be paid and are entitled to the protections under the ESA (for example, see Sandhu v. Brar or Girex Bancorp Inc. v. Hsieh).

Yet unpaid internships have flourished for a number of reasons. Young people are desperate to get on the track towards meaningful work in a difficult job market, and are often willing to take unpaid work as a first step to gain greater experience or make contacts. The government has failed to meaningfully educate young people about the laws surrounding internships. As a result, many young people may not know their rights or what they can do to enforce those rights.

Because many young people are either unaware of their rights, or are unwilling to make a complaint due to concerns about losing a potential reference early in their careers, employers are getting away with paying these employees absolutely nothing for their valuable work. Despite this situation, the government has not been effective in either raising awareness about the existing laws or in enforcing the laws proactively through its powers to inspect and make orders.

A new group, Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams, has risen up to fight against the growing practice of unpaid internships in Ontario. They are calling on the government of Ontario to take the following steps:

  1. Proactively enforce the current law on unpaid internships;
  2. Engage in an educational campaign to inform employers, students, youth, post-secondary educational institutions and the general public about their legal rights and obligations surrounding unpaid internships; and
  3. Undertake a comprehensive review of the law on unpaid internships in Ontario.

These suggested steps are modest and yet are long overdue.

The newly-formed group held a press conference at Queen’s Park on November 5, 2013. Similar groups are fighting unpaid internships in other Canadian cities and in other countries, including in the U.K. and the United States.

More on the need for action on unpaid internships here.


Christine Davies

Practice Areas

Employment Law