By: Marco Chown Oved Staff Reporter, Published on Tue Mar 05 2013
Anya Oberdorf has a university degree, a college certificate and experience with two employers in the publishing industry, but still can’t find a paying job. She spent more than a year working two unpaid internships, neither of which led to gainful employment.
After working part-time in a gourmet food store to pay the bills, she left to focus on finding work in her field. Though she’s been able to secure a few freelance editing jobs, the elusive salaried position still eludes her.
“My experience has been really frustrating,” said the Toronto native. “I can’t afford a third internship, but I don’t want to sit around at home, either.”
Oberdorf’s story is far from unique. Young people are stringing together multiple unpaid internships, and it’s not always helping them find a job — breaking an implicit promise that has drawn a generation of workers into offering their work for free.
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Unpaid internships that last months or even years make up the most unstable part of an increasingly precarious workforce, which accounts for almost half of employment in the GTA and Hamilton, according to a recent report.
Very few facts are known about unpaid internships. The Ministry of Labour doesn’t regulate or keep statistics on them. Yet, for young people, they seem to be everywhere.
According to Statistics Canada, unemployment in Ontario for those younger than 24 is 16.5 per cent.
That’s more than double the rate of 6.3 per cent for those above 24.
“You won’t find the word ‘intern’ in our employment laws at all. It’s an industry term,” said David Doorey, professor of employment law at York University. “There seems to be a widely held belief that an employer avoids our basic employment law rules simply by labelling someone an intern. That’s wrong.”
In many sectors of the economy, internships seem to have replaced entry-level positions, forcing young people to work without pay for years till they gain enough experience to get hired for mid-level jobs, says Toronto lawyer and internship critic Andrew Langille.
“Exploitation of unpaid interns has reached epidemic levels,” Langille said.
Langille estimates tens of thousands of people are misclassified as interns by their employers. “As a result of this mischaracterization these young people forgo wages, can’t collect EI, and aren’t credited with contributions to CPP,” said Langille, who monitors internship job postings on his blog and often intervenes in an attempt to see that minimum wage is paid.
Much of the confusion stems from a Ministry of Labour fact sheet posted in 2011.
“There are no regulations pertaining to unpaid internships,” the fact sheet explains, before going on to outline the exceptions to labour law where less than minimum wage can be paid.
Six conditions must be met, including one that stipulates internships cannot lead to paid work — a promise often used to attract young people to unpaid internships in the first place.
An unpaid intern can’t do work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee, nor can the employer benefit from their work, the fact sheet says.
While it may seem clear, there is lots of wiggle room for employers in current labour law. Exemptions to labour law can be made for many reasons, said the Ministry of Labour’s Gisele Rivet.
People in training, volunteers, co-ops, apprenticeships and a variety of other categories of workers aren’t classified as employees under Ontario labour law, she said.
Yet even the labour ministry can’t clearly explain what a legal or illegal internship would look like. “I can’t say whether it’s a lawful situation. We have to look at the facts of the situation. We’d have to have somebody investigate . . . to determine whether the general rules apply or an exemption or special rule applies,” Rivet said.
With unpaid internships so widespread, critics say it’s time to address them in law instead of treating them as an exception.
“It may be time for governments to consider introducing a permit system,” said York University’s Doorey. “This would allow the government to verify that internships are not being used as a method to obtain free labour.”
Nav Bhandal, a Mississauga labour and employment lawyer, says people fear filing complaints because they want a job and don’t want to anger prospective employers.
There have been very few cases of interns suing for wages — he knows of only one — which makes it hard to interpret exactly what the law means.
“We need people who are going to take a stand,” he said.