Are Unpaid Internships Illegal in Canada?

In Legal, Unpaid Internships on November 21, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Answering the question of whether unpaid internships are illegal in Canada poses several problems.

First, labour law is generally a provincial matter and employment standards legislation varies from province to province. Second, there are no definitions of terms like “intern” in any employment acts and there seems to be a lot of misinterpretation or misunderstandings of current legislation.

Those interested in a good collection of research to date on the situation in Ontario, should check out lawyer Andrew Langille’s post on the topic.

In Ontario, a 6-point test borrowed from the American Department of Labour applies to determine whether an individual is an employee (and therefore subject to all the rights and protections of the Employment Standards Act), or not.  These criteria must all be met to classify an individual as a person receiving training. They must firstly actually be receiving training similar to that which they would receive from a vocational school, they must receive the primary benefit from the arrangement while the employer derives no direct benefit, the individual is not replacing paid employees, and it is clear that there is no right to employment or remuneration in order to not be considered an employee.

Exclusions are also provided for those receiving credit from approved educational institutions, as in co-ops or work placements. Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia also have language governing voluntary or unpaid labour, but research is still needed to truly understand how the legislation is being applied and what gaps exist across the country.

This past summer, the Ontario Ministry of Labour released a fact sheet on unpaid internships in an apparent attempt to clear up the matter. However, the practice appears to continue unabated and is perhaps growing as a result of the economic downturn, shifting demographics, and an economy increasingly based on precarious work arrangements.

Unfortunately, internsheep suspects that many young Canadians are falling through the cracks and are either shut out of opportunities due to an inability to work for free, or are being taken advantage of in exploitative work relationships.

Individuals concerned about their characterization as an intern can contact their provincial or territorial Employment Standards Office. The numbers are listed below. Be sure to also check out the tips over at Youth and Work – document as much of your work experience as you can, keep good records, and take action early.

Alberta: 1-877-427-3731

British Columbia: 1-800-663-3316

Manitoba: 1-800-821-4307

New Brunswick: 1-888-452-2687

Newfoundland and Labrador: 1-877-563-1063

Northwest Territories: 1-888-700-5707 (Canada wide)

Nova Scotia: 1-888-315-0110

Nunavut: 1-877-806-8402

Ontario: 1-800-531-5551

Prince Edward Island: 1-800-333-4362

Quebec: Labour Standards Office – 1 800 265-1414

Saskatchewan: 1-800-667-1783

Yukon: 1-800-661-0408 local 5944

Federally Regulated Industries: 1-800-641-4049



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