A group representing interns and students has pulled out of consultations with the federal government concerning possible changes to the Canada Labour Code connected to unpaid internships.
“We urge your government to immediately halt this process, and to enact meaningful reforms,” implored the Canadian Intern Association (CIA) in a letter to Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk.
“We are not interested in haggling over the minutiae of the degrees of exploitation (such as number of sick days) for unpaid workers,” said the CIA’s letter to the minister. “These conditions are overbroad, unclear and inadequate.”
The changes, originally initiated under the Stephen Harper administration, would allow unpaid internships up to four months as long as it doesn’t replace a paid position and is for the “benefit of the intern.”
The intern association says most labour groups oppose any type of unpaid internship unless it’s for academic credit.
The Canadian Labour Congress, which represents 3.3 million workers in Canada, agrees.
“We think interns are no different than other workers,” Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress told Yahoo Canada News. “They are entitled to the same protections and to pay. The only exemption [i.e. pay] is if it is an academic form of training. But, their health and safety should also be protected.”
Mihychuk’s office responded to a query by the Toronto Star by saying the minister would still like to hear from all Canadians about changes to the labour code.
“We are confident this government will be doing a lot on this issue,” said Yussuff. “The federal government should be the model that the provinces and territories look up to.”
Federal and provincial regulations
The Canada Labour Code only covers federally-regulated industries in areas such as broadcasting, mining, shipping, transportation, communications, aviation, banking and government workers. The labour code applies to about 12,000 companies in the country, according to the government site.
Provincial regulations oversee other sectors of work. Some provinces, such as Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, have stricter rules on unpaid internships but other provinces remain vague in their requirements.
Advocacy groups argue unpaid internships amount to exploitation in many companies that are profitable.
In fact, Bell Mobility dropped its program in 2014 after an ex-intern filed a labour complaint to seek back wages.
“There has been a proliferation in the use of interns in recent years,” said Yussuff. “ And there has been broad documentation of abuse, I would say, especially over the past five years.”
Attempts were made by the federal NDP to alter the Canada Labour Code last year. Quebec NDP MP Laurin Liu introduced a private member’s bill.
Bill C-636, the Intern Protection Act, broadened the definition of “employee” to include unpaid interns. It also expanded protections to them from sexual harassment, restricted hours of work and upheld the right to refuse dangerous work. The bill asked for internships to be managed by educational institutions as well.
In April 2015, the Conservatives proposed changes to the labour code, allowing for the four-month unpaid term, and ignored a majority of the NDP’s recommendations detailed in C-636. Those proposed amendments to the labour code did, however, include occupational health and safety protection for unpaid interns, such as the right to refuse to do unsafe work and obliged employers to keep records of the number of hours worked.
The NDP took on the cause of unpaid internships after the death of a 22-year-old Alberta man in 2011 who crashed his car late at night after working long hours at his practicum at a radio station.
Death from overwork
Andy Ferguson was on his hour-long commute after working a morning shift and then all night at the Edmonton radio station. The weather was clear at the time and he had no drugs or alcohol in his system. Records also show he wasn’t on his cellphone when he crashed.
His family has blamed his punishing hours and believe he fell asleep at the wheel after putting in 16 hours in a 24-hour period.
“The majority of folks doing internships are young people,” noted Yussuff, who adds that the unemployment rate for those aged 18-30 hovers near 14 per cent — double the national average. “It speaks very badly of how we treat them in terms of the future of the country.”
Student organizations and advocacy groups estimate that 100,000 to 300,000 Canadians work without being paid. A definitive number is hard to find as Statistics Canada does not gather data on unpaid internships.
“Young people are vulnerable,” said Yussuff. “They haven’t had decent employment prospects since 2008. They always say ‘it’s getting life experience’ but what about getting that experience AND getting paid?”