Feds facing scrutiny over unpaid interns

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The federal government is facing uncomfortable questions about its use of unpaid interns — and the miniscule proportion who went on to gain permanent employment afterwards. 

Federal departments have used a reported 961 unpaid interns since 2008, but only 22 of them were hired on after their internship term, according to documents released after questions from NDP MP Laurin Liu. 

Liu, 24, said she had seen many of her fellow millennials jump from unpaid internship to unpaid internship. She introduced a private member’s bill — Bill C-636 or the Intern Protection Act — before Parliament in late 2014. But she wanted more information about how widespread the practice of hiring unpaid interns was within the government.   

“It came to my attention that there were many unpaid internships being offered in federal departments. So I decided to... get an idea of exactly how many unpaid internships are being used,” said Liu, who represents the riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, Que.

The fact that these internships were so widespread — and so few were actually hired on — was startling, said Liu. 

“It’s shocking, it’s disappointing but unfortunately it means that these opportunities aren’t actually benefiting the intern. It means that these opportunities don’t actually lead to a permanent, full-time job,” she said. “This is a story that we’ve been hearing increasingly from young workers... entry-level jobs are actually being replaced by unpaid internships without any promise or any job offer being offered down the road.”

Full picture still unclear

Veterans Affairs reported using the highest number of unpaid interns since 2008 — but that was based on data that was, from some departments, incomplete. 

“It was a very large document that we received from the government as a response… each government department submitted their own data and some departments submitted incomplete information. It really varied from department to department,” said Liu, adding that the data they received was only part of the picture. 

“It was difficult to get a complete answer but I think it shows that this is a really large phenomenon that is taking place.”

The actual number of unpaid interns used on Parliament Hill could be quite a bit higher, said Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer and advocate for young workers.

“The number is actually higher than what was indicated... Certainly there are quite a few interns on Parliament Hill working for MPs and senators, so I’m sure that number would probably boost the figure by 500 a year. But overall, it’s not surprising. We’ve known that this has been an issue for a number of years but this is the first time that we’ve seen concrete evidence indicating this is a more systemic problem across the board,” he said. 

The fact that the federal government is engaging in these employment practices is not a surprise to Claire Seaborn, Toronto-based president of the Canadian Intern Association. 

“It’s not a shock to us,” she said. “I’m really glad that awareness is being raised about the issue and that there seems to be a growing public sentiment that this is problematic. So I definitely appreciate that.

“The fact that we’re talking about these federal interns really highlights the need for reform of federal employment laws.”

Seaborn has appeared twice before the House of Commons finance committee to give submissions on amendments to the Canada Labour Code around employing interns. 

“They’re not protected by workplace health and safety, there’s not a lot of guidance on human rights — although they are protected by human rights laws — and it’s just unclear at the federal level whether interns are considered employees or not. So we’re looking for clarity at the federal level,” she said. 

Liu’s bill shares many of those same objectives. 

“Currently, the federal Labour Code does not cover unpaid internships so that means interns working for federally regulated industries such as telecommunications and banking are not actually protected from things like harassment or things like reasonable hours of work. So I tabled a bill in order to make sure that all unpaid interns receive the same protections that paid employees currently receive,” she said. 

“My bill would also reduce the use of unpaid internships, it would ensure that paid positions can’t be transformed into unpaid internships, and it would also ensure that unpaid internships are primarily for the benefit of the intern.”

Amending the federal Labour Code would just be a starting point, said Liu. 

“This bill is really tabled with a goal of fixing these urgent lapses in the system, this concerning grey area that interns currently fall under. 

“But there definitely needs to be more action taken federally to deal with this issue of unpaid internships, and the larger issue of youth unemployment which often forces young workers to go into unpaid internships.”

Moving forward

One important step would be for Statistics Canada to begin tracking data around interns, said Seaborn. 

“The fact that this data is not available is really problematic.”

Currently, there are an estimated 300,000 unpaid interns in Canada, said Liu. 

“But there is no official data from StatsCan to prove this. So if we want to deal with the issue of unpaid interns in Canada… we need to measure the problem.” 

There should also be a directive to the federal departments that if they’re going to use internships, they have to be paid, said Langille. 

“Frankly, young people shouldn’t have to do an unpaid internship with the federal government. The federal government has quite a lot of financial resources behind it and the idea that they can’t pay minimum wage is somewhat absurd. They have the ability to pay, and they’re choosing not to pay the young workers,” he said. 

“It sends a signal to other companies, be it the Bells or the Rogers of the world, that it’s acceptable to exploit young people.”

Enforcement is also an issue, but it’s difficult to focus on enforcement when it’s unclear what the law is, said Seaborn. 

“How is the federal government essentially doing nothing in terms of enforcement? First of all, you have a lack of clarity on your laws, and then you’re not enforcing them, I guess because the laws aren’t clear,” she said. 

“It would be great if (the federal government) were setting an example for the rest of the country. But, instead, I think Ontario has been the leader in terms of enforcement strategies, the Ontario Ministry of Labour, because they’ve done some really cool inspection blitzes, they’ve responded to anonymous complaints.”

But it’s important that the federal government model best practices as well, said Langille, and if you look at organizations in Canada with good human resources practices, the standard is to pay interns. 

“The federal government is sending a terrible message here. They’re telling young people that they’re worthless, they’ve undeserving of a wage,” he said. “I really hope those practices change soon.”

This article originally appeared on HRReporter.com
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