Unpaid internships may be a good way for people to get training in their field but they could also lead to exploitation, says Toronto employment lawyer Doug MacLeod.
“The devil is in the details,” says MacLeod, principal of MacLeod Law Firm. “If the employer just wants zero-cost labour to do work that has value then that’s just exploitive. But there’s no way employers are going to hire interns unless they’re going to get some benefit, so it’s a matter of how you balance that.”
Proposed changes to the Canada Labour Code would permit unpaid internships of up to four months in federally regulated sectors such as banking and telecommunications, the Toronto Star reports. The internships would have to primarily benefit the intern and can’t replace a paid position.
Groups such as the Canadian Intern Association are pleading with the Liberal government to halt the proposed changes, saying the unpaid internships would amount to four-month unpaid probationary periods, according to the Star.
MacLeod says he can see both sides of the debate. Recent graduates often have trouble gaining experience in their chosen field, he says.
So it’s important to ensure the interns are learning and applying skills while employers provide mentoring as they get a “first look” at a future employee, MacLeod tells AdvocateDaily.com.
“The challenge for the government when drafting the legislation is to make sure the interns really do get a significant benefit for donating their time,” he says.
He points to the Ontario Employment Standards Act, which includes six conditions that must be satisfied in order for an unpaid internship to be legal.
For example, the employer cannot promise a trainee a job after the internship prior to the internship.
Such a stipulation in the federal rules would protect workers from working an “unpaid probationary period,” MacLeod says.
“If it’s time-limited — four months — I don’t have a problem with unpaid internships in theory if the interns really get a benefit that will help them get a job in their field,” he says. “Although they’re not going to get paid, it’s sort of a long-term investment in their career.”