The student federation at the University of Moncton launched a campaign Tuesday called "My Internship is Ruining Me," asking the government of New Brunswick to put financial measures in place to help students who must complete unpaid internships as part of their degree.
The federation (FEECUM) said students in programs like education, nursing or social work complete unpaid internships in the public sector that often last several months at a time, which can take a financial toll.
"If it's in the way of paying the intern, we might be at that avenue," said FEECUM president Tristian Gaudet. "If it's in the form of bursary, we're open to that also."
Gaudet and other students argue they often end up doing what they say is essentially the work of a paid employee, all while paying tuition.
They also say internships come with many added costs, like medical equipment or vaccines for those in health professions. Others have to pay for transport or accommodation if they are placed outside of Moncton.
"It's definitely been exhausting when it comes to clinicals," said Veronique Cormier, a fourth-year nursing student. "We're there to learn and we do 12-hour shifts, eight-hour shifts, two to three times a week, and a lot of students work at the same time on the weekends, because they have bills to pay."
Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer and general counsel to the Canadian Intern Association, believes the students' demands are sensible.
After horror stories about unpaid internships recently made headlines across the country, the federal government finally announced changes in its 2017 budget, limiting unpaid internships in the federal public sector.
Langille said the University of Moncton students' demands are in line with trends seen across the country.
He believes despite the recent federal announcement, some provinces still have work to do.
"Given New Brunswick's demographic issues, I would treat this as a pretty serious request," said Langille.
"If young people don't feel that they have the economic wherewithal to survive in New Brunswick, they will move to other jurisdictions in Canada. And I think giving support to young workers and students is incredibly necessary."
Students in New Brunswick are the most indebted in the country, racking up around $35,000 in debt after a bachelors degree on average, according to Statistics Canada.
Internships provide 'valuable experience'
But a spokesperson for the department of post-secondary education, training and labour said those internships are an investment in the students' future wages.
"Students acquire valuable experience in their chosen field at significant cost to the institutions that take them on," said Jason Hoyt, director of communications for the department. He added that no other province in Canada pays students for internships.
Hoyt believes the best method for government to assist students with the cost of their post-secondary education is to target those who need help most. He cited programs like New Brunswick's new free tuition program.
But Langille said he hasn't been able to find any laws in New Brunswick saying students are exempt from being paid minimum wage, as is the case in many other provinces, and believes there are legal as well as moral concerns around the issue.
"New Brunswick is a bit of an odd duck situation in that it doesn't regulate internships to any degree whatsoever. To such a point I would question whether not paying students is even legal," he said.
Langille said he would like to see the government take a long hard look at internships and impose a series of statutory measures that ensure fairness for young workers, including paying them the minimum wage.
"I think it comes down to a moral question of having students work and not paying them," said Gaudet.