Ontario cracks down on unpaid internships at prominent Canadian magazines

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Ontario cracks down on unpaid internships at prominent Canadian magazines

The Ontario government has fired a shot across the bow of the province's magazine sector over the use of unpaid internships.

The Ministry of Labour has ordered The Walrus and Toronto Life to kill their internship programs by Friday following complaints of unfair labour practices, the Globe and Mail reports.

A ministry inspector found the magazines' programs employing aspiring journalists, designers and others in unpaid roles contravened the Employment Standards Act, the Globe said.

The Walrus's web page for jobs and internships carried an announcement that no four-to-six-month unpaid internships can be offered unless the interns have a formal agreement for a work experience with a vocational school.

According to Postmedia News, Toronto Life was using interns for work that was not tied to their studies. Only people doing work for school credit can participate in unpaid internships. The law requires all others to be paid at least minimum wage, Postmedia News said.

[ Related: Backlash against unpaid internships growing in Canada, called 'exploitation' ]

The ministry's targeting of The Walrus and Toronto Life should worry other magazine publishers, said Doug Knight, president of St. Joseph Media, which produces Toronto Life and several other magazines.

“We’ve been told that, as of April 1, every inspector in the Ministry of Labour will be targeting the magazine industry in the province of Ontario,” Knight told the Globe.

St. Joseph has about 20 to 30 internship positions at its various titles, including five at Toronto Life, and about 200 paid staff, the Globe said.

Postmedia News reported two of Toronto Life's seven interns were qualified under the law's guidelines, while most of St. Joseph's other interns will also have to go. Only two of 11 interns will be able to stay at The Walrus.

Unpaid internships have been under fire for some time. What are supposed to be valuable real-world learning experiences for students have been condemned as a vehicle for providing free labour for businesses.

[ Related: Unpaid restaurant busboy intern: valuable educational experience or just free labour? ]

Statistics Canada estimates there are up to 300,000 unpaid interns working across the country, the Financial Post reported recently.

All provinces and the federal government have rules around internship programs but young people desperate for work experience may be willing sometimes to overlook the exploitation of so-called "internships."

Toronto Life was among the first magazines in Canada to offer four-month internships, which Postmedia News said helped launch journalism careers for many who did not necessarily attend a journalism school but still wanted to get a taste of the business.

“We’ve been running an internship program at Toronto Life for something like 20 years,” Knight told the Globe. “It’s been wide open, there’s been no secret about it.

"It would be a shock and a surprise to suggest the Ontario government was not aware of the fact that these internships programs were running.”

The Walrus's statement on the government's order also expressed regret that it won't be offering such chances for would-be journalists.

"We have been training future leaders in media and development for ten years, and we are extremely sorry we are no longer able to provide these opportunities, which have assisted many young Ontarians – and Canadians – in bridging the gap from university to paid work and in, many cases, on to stellar careers."