Bell accused of breaking labour law with unpaid interns

Two former interns have filed complaints with government against Bell Mobility, alleging the telecom giant broke labour laws by not paying them for work they did for the company.

“It felt like I was sitting in an office as an employee, doing regular work. It didn’t feel like a sort of training program,” said Jainna Patel, 24, who was an unpaid intern with Bell for five weeks last year.

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“They just squeezed out of you every hour they could get and never showed any intent of paying.”

She filed a complaint with federal authorities in May 2012, which has yet to be resolved.

Patel and others were "associates" in a Bell program that invites 280 post-secondary grads per year to work voluntarily in Bell’s Mississauga, Ont., complex, for three to four months at a time, on projects that are supposed to enhance their future careers.

“Bell's Professional Management Program (PMP) is a voluntary training program for post-secondary students, recent graduates and those in career transition,” said a statement from Bell spokesman Albert Lee.

“Participants get the opportunity to learn in a corporate environment with advanced technology and support from management and the Bell Mobility team.”

Patel said it was that promise that kept young people signing up.

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“Who wants to say 'I’m working at McDonalds nine to five because I need money to pay off school?'” she asked. “People are more proud to say, 'I’m working with Bell. I’m an intern. It’s OK even if I’m unpaid, because it’s Bell Mobility.'”

In reality, the program was not as advertised, Patel said, and she didn’t learn or benefit from it.

Instead, Patel said, she and the others were expected to do menial jobs for Bell — such as phone surveys and electronic market research — sometimes for more than 12 hours a day.

“My dad was like, ‘You are not getting paid? I don’t understand,’” said Patel. “He’s like, is this a scam? What are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s Bell. It’s not a scam.'”

She said people in the program were bright and ambitious, so when they were asked to stay after hours — to do phone surveys, for example — they wouldn’t argue.

“We were told certain tasks had to be done, you know, that day. You’d have to stay. You’d have to stay until 10-12 o’clock,” she said.

“People were afraid to say no. My first week there I talked to one of the girls and she was there until about 3 a.m.”

The other intern Go Public interviewed — who spoke on condition of anonymity — said he also felt taken advantage of. He is now 27, and said he spent two months in the program, in the fall of 2010.

“You were sold on the Bell brand. Being able to work at the largest telecom in the country in a modern office,” he said, adding that some people stayed as long as six months.

“Most of these kids don’t have other opportunities. These are ambitious young people who just go back to their parents' basement … it was very, very disappointing.”

He said he was assigned to do tedious market research and that he and others were chastised if they were late or didn’t want to work overtime.

“We went through every school in the country and mapped it. And then put it on a grid that they used internally,” he said. “I was told it was so they knew where to place cell towers and also where to place advertising.”

He said he only recently filed his complaint with government, when he realized he may have a claim for unpaid wages.

“I didn’t learn anything,” he said. “I learned not to trust corporations. I learned how life works. Anything I learned professionally was from the other interns.”

Patel’s complaint, filed with the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, claims Bell owes her almost $2,500.

“You would think that a large corporation has the funds to, you know, pay working employees to get work done,” she said. “If it was strictly a learning-based program, it would have been different.”

In May of this year, federal authorities wrote to Bell, directing the company to pay Patel, or submit reasons why it disputes her claim.

Go Public asked Bell about this case, but its statement didn’t address her complaint directly.

“The purpose of the PMP… is to grow participants’ experience and skills by learning in a real-world business setting,” Bell responded. “It's important to note that the program doesn’t replace any Bell employees or support or benefit any of Bell’s business operations.”

The telecom’s intern program is run by Henry Mar, a manager who the interns said runs Bell’s marketing intelligence division. Go Public asked several times to speak to Mar, but received no response.

Patel claims, when she told Mar she was leaving, he tried to talk her into keeping quiet, warning her if she went to authorities it would hurt the program.

“He said, ‘What about all the paperwork you are going to create for the program?’ and things like that and ‘What if I have to close down the program?’”

She said she felt so intimidated, at one point she broke down and cried.

“It felt very intimidating to be in the room with Henry one on one. I shed tears,” Patel said, adding she stood her ground anyway.

“He never showed any signs of backing off. He would constantly stare me down.”

Toronto lawyer Andrew Langille has studied the laws regarding internships and has helped interns with claims against several Canadian companies.

Overall, he estimates up to 300,000 young people are now working as unpaid interns in Canada. He suggests the vast majority of those arrangements are illegal.

“My estimates are somewhere above 90 per cent should be paid and they are not being paid,” said Langille.

In Ontario, provincially regulated employers (not telecoms) have to meet six conditions to justify not paying an intern, including giving training that benefits the intern and reaping no benefit from the work the intern does. However, Langille said, many companies now flout those rules.

“We’ve seen explosive growth within intern culture in the last 10 years in Canada and particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis,” he said.

“Employers decided to use the poor economic conditions and the poor labour market as a carte blanche to begin replacing paid employees with unpaid ones.”

Kyle Iannuzzi filed a complaint with Ontario authorities against his former employer and won. He worked as an unpaid intern for Platinum Events Group, an event planning company, in 2011. After he won his claim, the owner was forced to pay him $959.40 in back pay.

“I was taken advantage of. I was exploited … there’s no reason in one of the richest countries in the world that people should be working for free,” he said.

For federally regulated companies like Bell, the Canada Labour Code doesn’t spell out specific rules for interns per se. However, Langille said, case law makes it clear almost all work should be paid for.

“If you are out of school and you are just providing free work for an employer, then it is typically illegal,” said Langille, who added that he’s heard more complaints about Bell’s internship program than any other.

“Is it permissible that a company that makes billions of dollars each year in profits is not paying the minimum wage? It’s ridiculous. A lot of the companies that are using unpaid labour have the ability to pay but choose not to — to save money.”

Federal MPs Andrew Cash (NDP) and Scott Brison (Liberal) have also taken up the cause. Cash plans to introduce a private member's bill calling for tougher, clearer federal laws. Brison wants better tracking of the problem.

This comes as a U.S. court ruled this month that Fox Searchlight had violated labour laws by using unpaid interns to make the movie Black Swan. The U.K. government is also cracking down on unpaid labour there.

Patel and Iannuzzi hope they don’t get blacklisted for speaking out, instead they hope to inspire other interns to push back.

“If every intern who you know came across an unpaid internship stepped away from it, I think it would be quite a different story,” said Patel. “But with the job prospects and the economy right now it’s tough to do.”

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

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Documents:

Jainna Patel's complaints to government

Government of Canada's response

Document: Bell Media's full statement to CBC's Go Public

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