Unpaid Internships

Written by on July 11, 2013 in Blog
Man with head in his hands

Two former interns have filed complaints with the government, alleging Bell Mobility broke labour laws by not paying them for their work.

Jainna Patel was an unpaid intern at Bell for five weeks in 2012. She says the internship didn’t feel like a training program. Instead, she felt like an employee doing regular work. She filed a complaint with federal authorities in May 2012.

Along with other interns, Patel was considered an associate in a Bell program that invites 280 post-secondary graduates annually to work voluntarily. They work in Bell’s Mississauga, Ont., complex for three to four months at a time, on projects meant to enhance their future careers.

Bell spokesman Albert Lee says the Professional Management Program (PMP) is a voluntary training program for post-secondary students, recent graduates and those in career transition. He says participants get the opportunity to learn in a corporate environment with advanced technology and support from management.

Patel said she feels the program was not as advertised and she didn’t learn or benefit from it. Patel and other interns were expected to complete phone surveys and do electronic market research, sometimes for more than 12 hours a day. She said people in the program were bright and ambitious, so when they were asked to work overtime, they usually agreed.

Patel’s complaint, filed with the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, claims Bell owes her approximately $2,500. In May 2013, federal authorities wrote to Bell, directing the company to pay Patel or submit reasons why it disputes her claim.

Kyle Iannuzzi worked as an unpaid intern in 2011 for Platinum Events Group, an event planning company. He filed a complaint with Ontario authorities against his former employer and won his claim; the owner was forced to pay him.

The controversy about unpaid internships comes as a U.S. court ruled that Fox Searchlight violated labour laws by using unpaid interns to make the movie Black Swan.

Toronto lawyer Andrew Langille has studied the laws regarding internships and has helped interns with claims against several Canadian companies. He estimates up to 300,000 young people currently work as unpaid interns in Canada. He suggests the vast majority of those arrangements are illegal. Langille believes that by law, 90 per cent of young people who currently work for free should be paid.

In Ontario, provincially regulated employers have to meet six conditions to justify not paying an intern, including giving training that benefits the intern and reaping no benefit from the work the intern does. However, Langille believes many companies now flout those rules. He says in Canada there has been explosive growth within intern culture in the last 10 years, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis.

For federally regulated companies like Bell, the Canada Labour Code doesn’t outline specific rules for interns. However, Langille says it’s typically illegal when interns who are out of school provide free work for an employer.

Federal MPs Andrew Cash (NDP) and Scott Brison (Liberal) have also spoken about the issue. Cash plans to introduce a private member’s bill calling for tougher, clearer federal laws, while Brison wants better tracking.

Lessons for Employers

Employers should remember that while generally, interns are not employees, if the employer reaps benefit from the intern’s work, the intern may become an employee and therefore may be entitled to pay and other provisions contained in the Employment Standards Act, 2000. Legal advice should be sought from Employment Law counsel to ensure that the substance of the working arrangement does not result in the intern being classified as an employee.

Lessons for Interns

Interns should remember that a true intern is not considered an “employee” and therefore the Employment Standards Act, 2000 does not apply. However, the substance of the relationship is what will be examined to determine whether or not an intern falls under the umbrella of an “employee” and therefore, the protection of the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

Minken Employment Lawyers is your Canadian source for expert Employment Law advice and advocacy on today’s employment law issues. Whether you are an employer or employee, we can help. Contact us to see how.

For more information, see CBC News, “Bell accused of breaking labour law with unpaid interns”, by Kathy Tomlinson, June 24, 2013.

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