Young woman at work

The end of the illegal unpaid internship in Canada?

Elizabeth Bromstein|

The fight against illegal unpaid internships continues.

The Globe and Mail reports that The Ontario Ministry of Labour has ordered The Walrus and Toronto Life magazines to end their internship programs after complaints of “unfair labour practices. It was found that the programs “contravened the Employment Standards Act,” and they will be shut down today (Friday, March 28). Other publications have reportedly been put on notice.

The publishing industry relies on interns who are willing to do a variety of jobs – including writing and design – for either nothing or next to nothing with the hope it will lead to gainful employment.

The Ministry said that it will be launching an “enforcement blitz” this spring, targeting internships in different sectors.

According to The Globe, Toronto Life has been running its internship program for about 20 years.

Doug Knight, president of Toronto Life publisher St. Joseph Media, said, “I would love to pay our interns. I would also love to give our regular staff annual cost of living increases. We can’t do it.”

St. Joseph publishes several magazines, including Fashion, Canadian Family and Wedding Bells.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, tells me, “Unpaid internships are illegal unless they’re part of an academic program or subject to one of the other remote exclusions. What those magazines were doing was always against the law. This is just an example of enforcement.

“The vast majority of internship that take place in Ontario should be paying those people the minimum wage.”

Laas Turnbull, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Grid, isn’t happy. Turnbull, is quoted by the Globe as saying, “It’ll be devastating to not only the industry, but to the thousands of would-be journalists trying to enter the work force each year.”

Well, not exactly. It might be devastating to the industry, but, since that industry clearly can’t support all these “thousands of would-be journalists,” perhaps it’s preferable that they not waste time working for free.

The internship issue, of course, spans far beyond the publishing industry – and doesn’t just apply to struggling sectors. Last year, two former interns filed complaints against Bell Mobility, alleging the communications giant broke labour laws by working them like employees without pay.

And some companies are just transparently attempting to exploit people, like Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, which came under fire last year for posting an ad looking for people to bus tables for free – and you know there’s no educational benefit to that. The ad was taken down after a social media outcry.

NDP MP Andrew Cash, who calls Canada the “Wild West” of illegal unpaid internships, also commented recently that “Not only are we talking about young university graduates having to work for free, but also newcomers to the country who are desperate for Canadian work experience and are resorting to working without pay.”

The CP reports that some organizations estimate there are as many as 300,000 people currently working for free at some of the Canada’s biggest and richest corporations.

Many of these companies need a lesson in ethics. On the other hand, it’s wildly offensive to read comments equating unpaid magazine gigs with “slavery.” Unpaid magazine interns aren’t abducted, forced to work for free and subject to prutal, inhumane treatment. They choose to work for free with the hope of climbing the ladder. Let’s cool it with the hyperbole. If a young person these days looks into the magazine industry and comes away thinking “That’s an industry I think I can crack!” they might suffer from poor judgment, and could avoid the horror of it all by better researching their chosen profession and opting for something else.

That’s not to say unpaid internships are not exploitative. It’s just an attempt to put things into perspective.

The reality for the publishing industry is that it is possible to get free labour and stay within the law.

Seaborn, who is skeptical of the “we can’t afford to pay” claim, says, “If they really don’t have the money, all they have to is partner with an academic institution and run an unpaid internship program that’s for credit.

“I don’t think that would be very challenging.”


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  • Mike

    A well written article. Glad to have read it.

  • http://about.me/davidalangay David Gay

    The shocking practices done by the companies listed above is not surprising. Even though the term slavery does not apply, it’s an employer’s market in this jobless recovery. Since young people and immigrants face more barriers in finding work than other demographics, they are desperate for a job, ANY job, and the employer knows it. The option to look elsewhere for alternatives is simply not there in this economic climate.Glad to see the Canadian government finally doing something about this practice.