Crackdown on unpaid internships a step in the right direction

Joshua Sherman
Managing & News Editor

Joshua Sherman

Joshua Sherman

When the Ministry of Labour shut down both the Walrus and Toronto Life internship programs late last month, it sent shockwaves through the magazine industry.

In the days that have followed, countless blog posts, tweets, and columns have surfaced online, with some supporting the Ministry’s crackdown and others opposing actions they perceived as either harmful to the industry, interns, or both.

While there are plenty of arguments coming from both sides, I find it hard to take issue with the action the Ministry’s taken.

Some have suggested that even illegal unpaid internships aren’t without merit, because they provide other benefits such as experience – but you can’t buy groceries or cover the rent with that.

For more financially privileged interns this isn’t as much of an issue, but that’s just another layer to the problem. In a situation where financial resources are required to take on a position, the scales are tipped in favour of more affluent applicants.

And then there’s the matter of consent. Some ask is there really anything wrong with a program if interns are willing to do the work?

Of course, as National Post writer Andrew Coyne was quick to point out in an April 3 column, “No one puts a gun to the head of the people, most of them quite young, who take these positions.”

However, in the cases of the internships that were recently shut down, the law was simply being broken, a point that Coyne brusquely dismisses, writing, “The law is an ass” in the very same column.

But businesses – even those publishing acclaimed magazines – need to respect regulations, convenient or not. It’s not up to them to decide which regulations should be followed and which should be ignored.

The Employment Standards act is clear on what constitutes a legal unpaid internship, and there are still options for businesses looking to run internship programs.

For instance, according to the Ministry of Labour’s website, “The (Employment Standards Act) does not apply to an individual who performs work under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university.” In other words, internships that are taken to fulfill the requirement of a degree or diploma are legal, paid or not. This makes it all the more frustrating that some businesses are flouting regulations.

Conversely, there’s nothing stopping students from enrolling in academic programs that offer internship opportunities in the field they’d like to explore. While it’s true students looking to get into fields unrelated to their studies may find it more difficult to do so, encouraging employers to take on interns with a demonstrated interest in their industry just makes sense.

Ultimately, regardless of the effects of the Ministry of Labour’s actions, there’s one undeniable positive: it’s raised the profile of unpaid interns in the province. According to the Toronto Star, there may be as many as 300,000 unpaid interns in Ontario alone, so anything that’s done to highlight the challenges facing a significant portion of the population is a good thing.

And it seems the Walrus and Toronto Life crackdowns are just the beginning. When I called the Ministry and left a message asking for comment, they emailed a statement that said, “The Ministry of Labour is launching an enforcement blitz this spring focused specifically on internships across a variety of sectors.”

Let’s hope it does.