New Democrat tables a bill to give unpaid interns more protection

NDP MP Jonah Schein

An Ontario member of provincial parliament is calling for serious changes to regulations surrounding unpaid internships.

New Democrat Jonah Schein tabled a private member’s bill last week at Queen’s Park that would amend the Employment Standards Act (ESA) – the law that regulates work hours, minimum wage and workplace safety.

If passed, the bill would see unpaid interns receive increased protection under the ESA. It would see that co-op students, trainees and interns are entitled to breaks and other protections.

Schein also said he would like to see contracts drawn up between unpaid workers and their employers and filed through the Ministry of Labour as part of the new bill.

“What’s so positive about it for me is it reminds people that, in this province, there are basic employment standards that must be met, and that an internship is not something that your boss can simply invent,” Schein said. “There are actually rules and laws about it.”

Under the current law, there is a six-part test that sets out the conditions that exempt a worker from the ESA. This includes if the intern receives some benefit from training, like “new knowledge and skills,” or if an intern has been told that there is no pay.

Most notably however, students participating in an internship for school credit are not protected under the act.

Rino Mattucci is one of many Ryerson students who have participated in an unpaid internship for school credit. “I wish they could get rid of unpaid internships, but this is a start,” the fourth-year radio and television arts student said. “I think giving students protection will help them feel confident about going out to their internships and give them more confidence to raise an issue that may happen to them – instead of fearing that it may ruin their career.”

While there are no immediate plans to enforce mandatory financial payment, Schein acknowledges that these unpaid positions pose a threat to students looking for jobs after they graduate. Recent graduates with jobs often aren’t in secure positions either, he said referencing the abundance of part-time and contract positions.

“We’ve got incredibly high unemployment (rates), official unemployment in Ontario, for young people especially,” Schein said. Mattucci said that he feels companies use unpaid internships as a way to take advantage of students looking for professional experience.

“I am worried about the increase of unpaid internships because — and I want to tread lightly here — it’s free labour and less money that a company has to put towards employees and more money for their pockets,” Mattucci said. “I think it’s almost cheating the system.”

Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said, that efforts for paid internships could provide a potential catch-22 situation for students.

“(Students) are afraid if they don’t take them, then they won’t have that experience,” Levy said. “I also worry if, all of a sudden, they’re paid – those experiential opportunities won’t come to young people.”
Schein’s bill also includes an anonymous complaint procedure to combat unfair treatment. Interns would have the opportunity to voice any frustrations they may be having – without risk of losing their position immediately. People would have the option of using a phone or email to voice their complaints.

“There are really great advocates for this,” said Schein, who is optimistic the bill will become law.

“People understand that this is an issue. So regardless of how this happens, there is going to be some change on this issue. There has to be some change.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 12, 2014.

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