The prevalence of unpaid internships is growing, but typically these positions are illegal and violate the minimum employment standards. It has been estimated that young workers engage in over 300,000 illegal unpaid internships every year across Canada and collectively forego tens of millions of dollars in wages, vacation pay and contributions to Employment Insurance and Canadian Pension Plan.
Internships have existed in some form since the 19th century, but have only been thrust into the public consciousness over the past few years. Originally, internships were a variation on the American version of the apprenticeship model and a means of rapidly training young workers for entry into a trade or profession. What began in medicine slowly entered a limited number of elite, male-dominated professions (such as politics and public administration) in the early 20th century.made
Over the past 20 years there was some growth in the prevalence of unpaid internships in the world of journalism, fashion and publishing; however, these positions were the exception rather than the rule. In the wake of the global financial crisis, many employers in a large number of industries used the bad economy as an excuse to cut labour costs and begin exploiting young workers via the use of unpaid labour.
Unpaid internships have a direct impact on the economy through contributing to youth unemployment, driving down wages, slowing economic growth and allowing employers to replace paid employees with unpaid, misclassified ones. Profound equality questions also arise from unpaid internships, given that these positions privilege wealthy students over poorer ones, predominantly target female-dominated occupations, exacerbate income inequality and force young people to take on higher levels of debt to sustain unpaid work.
Students and young graduates are sold the idea of working for free with promises of experience, references, networking opportunities, acquiring new skills and the “potential” of an eventual, paying position. Most of the time internships do not act as a door to stable, secure employment as apprenticeships or entry-level jobs often do. For a lucky few, unpaid internships can lead to a well-paying job, but for the vast majority of youths, internships only lead to insecurity, precarity and alienation from the labour market.
Locally, many prominent organizations use unpaid interns — examples include UBC, the U.S. State Department, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Vancouver Whitecaps, St. Joseph Media and the Vancouver Aquarium. It does not appear that the use of unpaid interns in B.C. has reached the epidemic levels seen in Toronto, New York, London or Washington; however, it is clear that thousands of young workers in B.C. face exploitative conditions where they are illegally misclassified as unpaid interns.
Under British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act ("the ESA") unpaid internships are prohibited and there is a strict prohibition on unpaid work. Under the ESA, all work, defined as providing labour or services to an employer, must be remunerated at the minimum wage or higher. The Employment Standards Branch has even issued an explicit policy interpretation on internships stating that if the intern undertakes work for an employer then they are considered an employee for the purposes of the ESA.
An example of an illegal situation would be a recent graduate working as an unpaid intern for a public relations firm writing press releases, answering phone calls and responding to emails. Another example of a prohibited situation would be a student working as an unpaid intern over the summer break for a non-profit organization writing grant applications, developing a donor database and soliciting donations from local businesses. In both examples the intern is actually an employee and entitled to the minimum wage.
Conversely, students completing practicums as part of a formal course of study leading to a certificate, diploma or degree are not considered employees and excluded from the ESA. In these situations students need to be supervised and engaged in “hands-on” training, and the practicum needs to be related to the student’s course of study. An example of this situation would be a student-teacher enrolled in a bachelor of education degree and undertaking a classroom placement as part of their training.
It should be noted that interns and students are also protected under other workplace law such as the Workers Compensation Act, the Human Rights Code and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation. These are critical protections as young workers often face unsafe situations or are subjected to workplace harassment (particularly sexual harassment).
Remember: you have the right to be paid minimum wage and to work free of discrimination in a safe environment. If you find yourself in a legally questionable internship, here are some tips: keep hard copies of all information, emails, documents, initial job application and any feedback you receive; keep a daily log of your duties, start/end times and breaks; ask that any remuneration occur via cheque or direct deposit; and keep copies of a final work product and drafts. Here are some contacts: Employment Standards Branch (1-800-663-3316); B.C. Human Rights Tribunal (1-888-440-8844); and, WorkSafeBC (1-888-621-7233).
Note: this article originally appeared in the Ubyssey and appears here with some minor modifications. In the near future I will be following up on this piece with a comprehensive review of the law in British Columbia.