Jainna Patel says her internship with Bell Mobility was no different from an entry-level job, plus overtime, except that she didn’t get a paycheque.
HER DAD TOLD HER THE INTERNSHIP WAS A SCAM. Jainna Patel said it wasn’t. Until the day she filed her complaint against Bell Mobility for scamming her to work for free.
Jainna Patel was an unpaid intern in 2013 in a Bell program that invites 280 post-secondary grads per year to work voluntarily in Bell’s Mississauga, Ont., complex, for three to four months at a time. The experience is supposed to enhance their future careers.
“Who wants to say ‘I’m working at McDonalds nine to five because I need money to pay off school?’” she asked. “People are more proud to say, ‘I’m working with Bell. I’m an intern. It’s OK even if I’m unpaid, because it’s Bell Mobility.’”
In reality, the program was not as advertised, Patel said, and she didn’t learn or benefit from it.
Unpaid internships are advertised as a way to get work experience that will be a big help in getting a full-time job. The reality is a lot different.
A 2014 survey of unpaid Ontario interns conducted for the Canadian Intern Association found that most internships fail to live up to expectations. However, it also found this reality did not shake the belief that unpaid internships are a good idea.
The survey notes: “Even though there was little evidence that interns gained much in tangible benefits from their internships, interns often still believed that the experience was worthwhile and valuable.
“The primary reason interns felt this way was because they thought that the internship helped build their resume and would “pay off” at some date in the future.”
The reality is that working for free, surrounded by others who are getting paid, is a bad idea that only gets worse. Unpaid internships lead to:
- students actually paying to work for free
- exposing women to more unfair treatment
- forcing people to work extra for free.
Paying to work for free
Anne, was a 27-year-old a Western University student in 2017. She was one of thousands of Ontario students required to complete an unpaid internship before finishing their university studies.
For Anne, the four-month long internship program required her to be in the workplace for approximately 40 hours a week. She also pays $1,200 in tuition for the opportunity.
“When I was going through the interview process, I was told I would be doing administrative work and that seems like work that should be paid because it’s helping the company,” she said.
Western University has 3,049 unpaid internships across 10 faculties compared to 632 that are paid.
Bre Major of Toronto was shocked to learn she would have to pay tuition during her final semester of a three-year media arts program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. The last four months she did not attend any classes, but completed a 12-week unpaid field placement.
During that final year, she still paid the college nearly $10,000 in tuition fees — the same amount as during her first two years filled with classroom instruction.
At Concordia University in Montreal some courses won’t even let the students take an internship unless it is unpaid.
Unpaid internships are made even worse because of gender discrimination. Concordia students reported that internships in studies mainly favoured by woman, like the social sciences, are typically unpaid. On the other hand, fields favoured more by men, like engineering and computer science, generally offer paid internships, that can pay as much as $10,000.
No pay doesn’t mean no overtime
The Canadian Intern Association reports one of the most common complaints they get comes from unpaid interns about the overtime they are expected to work, in addition to the hours mandated by their academic institutions.
Andrew Langille, is a Toronto lawyer and General Counsel for the Canadian Intern Association. He says it’s “common” for unpaid interns to be asked to work more than 44 hours a week.
He estimates law and medical students face the greatest time demands, which can easily exceed 60-hour work weeks. While a law student, Langille worked between 50 and 60 hours a week at a legal clinic for a semester without pay.
Langille points out the power imbalance between interns and employers makes students reluctant to approach their school administration with any overtime or payment concerns.
“If you don’t adhere to the whims of the employer, it can impact if you graduate or not,” he says. Langille knows of cases where employers suggest to school administrators that students who have refused to work overtime or complained about wages should be failed for lack of co-operation. “That’s a huge power imbalance.”
Even if students want to complain about overtime hours, they don’t have a proper avenue for doing so, he says, because unpaid student interns are not covered under provincial and territorial employment standards acts.
Murky law, weak enforcement
Langille estimates up to 300,000 young people are now working as unpaid interns in Canada. He suggests the vast majority of those arrangements are illegal.
“My estimates are somewhere above 90 per cent should be paid and they are not being paid,” said Langille.
“We’ve seen explosive growth within intern culture in the last 10 years in Canada and particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis,” he said.
“Employers decided to use the poor economic conditions and the poor labour market as a carte blanche to begin replacing paid employees with unpaid ones.”
Unpaid internships exist in a murky world of unclear legislation. Most provinces make unpaid work illegal: unless the work is done in pursuit of a university degree or professional certification. Whether or not employers are compelled to treat all interns as workers entitled to labour standards remains unclear.
For federally regulated companies like Bell, the Canada Labour Code doesn’t spell out specific rules for interns per se. However, Langille said, case law makes it clear almost all work should be paid for.
“If you are out of school and you are just providing free work for an employer, then it is typically illegal,” said Langille.
“Is it permissible that a company like Bell that makes billions of dollars each year in profits is not paying the minimum wage? It’s ridiculous. A lot of the companies that are using unpaid labour have the ability to pay but choose not to — to save money.”
Kyle Iannuzzi came to the same conclusion and decided to do something about it.
He worked as an unpaid intern for Platinum Events Group in Ontario in 2011. He filed a complaint against his former employer and won. The company was ordered to pay him $959.40 in back pay.
“I was taken advantage of,” says Kyle. “I was exploited … there’s no reason in one of the richest countries in the world that people should be working for free.”
Wall of Shame
Employers big and small, rich and poor, conservative and progressive are all likely to use the intern scam to get people to work for free. Enforcement action by the Ontario Ministry of Labour in 2014 led to the shutdown of unpaid internship programs at two popular magazines — Toronto Life and The Walrus.
The Walrus ran its unpaid internship program for ten years; Toronto Life for about 20.
The Canadian Intern Association is a not-for-profit organization that advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve internship experiences. Their work focuses on education, law reform, research and media coverage.
The association website features a running list of a “Wall of Shame” to turn a spotlight on Canadian employers caught using unpaid internships to exploit workers. Their list includes: Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, The Hill Times, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Canadian Football League, Rogers TV, Big Tree Capital Partners, LCC, Rugby Canada, Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, Reader’s Digest Media Canada, Roots Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute, Vancouver International Fringe Festival, WIND Mobile, HootSuite Media Inc., IMAX Corporation, Women’s Post,
The federal budget in March 2017 was a red letter day for the Canadian Intern Association. The federal government finally agreed to ban unpaid internships in federally regulated sectors, unless the internship is part a school program. It was something the association had been lobbying hard for since 2013.
This law amendment will stop some of Canada’s most profitable companies in the banking, telecommunications, and transport sectors from cheating their interns out of the pay and protections all workers deserve.
- 30 -