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Employment & Labour

Parliament considers bill for beefed up protections for unpaid interns

Canadian Press THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA – Parliament is poised to open debate on an NDP private member's bill that would give unpaid interns workplace standards and safety protections under the Canada Labour Code.

The bill, introduced last spring by Quebec MP Lauren Liu, would ensure that all internships are linked to educational programs and are primarily of benefit to the intern, not the employer.

The proposed legislation would also limit the number of hours of work for unpaid interns, and provide them the right to refuse dangerous work. As well, it would prohibit companies from replacing paid work with internships.

Some ``very profitable and powerful Canadian companies'' are still abusing internships despite a growing public outcry, New Democrat MP Andrew Cash told a news conference Tuesday on Parliament Hill.

``We continue to hear very troubling stories from those who have done internships in large, very profitable corporations who were taken advantage of, forced to do work that was of little benefit to them or brought on simply as a replacement for paid workers.''

While some provinces – Quebec, Ontario and Alberta among them – provide some protections to unpaid interns, there are no laws covering federally regulated businesses that use free labour.

In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto employment lawyer Allison Greene says additional regulations for unpaid interns is a start, though the practice remains questionable.

“One of the problems I have with unpaid internships is it means only people with a certain amount of privilege can take advantage of the opportunities,” says Greene, partner with Karimjee Greene LLP. “You need to have someone who can support you, whether it’s a partner or your family, and in absence of that, you’re denied the opportunity to enter into a job market and get the necessary experience. I think that’s really problematic.”

Also concerning, says Greene, is that the issue seems to affect more women than men.

“In the United States more than 75 per cent of unpaid interns are women, and there’s reason to believe the situation is similar here in Canada,” says Greene. “Unpaid internships are most prominent in industries that have female workers like journalism, marketing and the arts, and I think there’s a perception that women can afford to do unpaid work because there’s somebody taking care of them.”

While the proposed bill doesn’t go as far as making unpaid internships illegal, Greene says it’s positive in that it sets conditions for employers.

“The unpaid intern cannot replace a paid employee, which I think is important as the job market becomes more fragmented,” says Greene. “The value of the legislation is that in addition to adding conditions it includes paid and unpaid interns within the definition of employee in the Canada Labour Code, which sets the minimum standards for all federally regulated employers. That means they would then have basic protections in health, safety, the right to refuse dangerous work and protections against having to work excess hours.”

When it comes to the need for unpaid workers, Greene says it’s easier to understand why smaller, non-profit organizations hire such individuals versus federally regulated businesses like telecommunications companies and banks.

“What we’ve seen since the province started cracking down on unpaid internships is many creative organizations have had more incentive to go out and seek funding to create paid opportunities for young people,” says Greene. “When you have a big company that could easily afford to pay minimum wage and they’re not, that means the employee’s family is basically paying a supplement for these huge for-profit organizations. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Conservative government has signalled to stakeholders in recent weeks that it's considering cracking down on the use of unpaid interns.

Cathy McLeod, the parliamentary secretary to Labour Minister Kellie Leitch, met in late January with several student, intern and union groups to discuss what could be done about regulating unpaid internships.

Naguib Gouda, president of Career Edge, an organization that places paid interns at hundreds of organizations, is supporting the NDP legislation.

It's important to provide equal access to employment opportunities for all Canadians, not just those with families who can support them, Gouda said in an interview.

What's more, he added, paid internships stimulate the Canadian economy by ensuring young workers are earning and spending money and paying taxes.

``To me, it's a no-brainer,'' Gouda said. ``Unpaid internships, as far as I am concerned, are absolutely wrong.''

The NDP bill has support from members of all three parties, including the Conservatives, he added.

``We have had our say, and I believe they get it.''

– With files from AdvocateDaily.com

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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