Unpaid internships illegal, except for university credit

Free labour is a growing issue among Albertans, particularly with students being “exploited in their efforts to gain work experience,” said Andrew Langille, general counsel for the Canadian Intern Association.

“They are being taken advantage of,” said Langille. “I think if somebody is doing work for an organization they should be paid.”

Employers cannot legally ask someone to work for free. They must respect the rights set out under the Alberta Employment Standards Code. This means employers should pay employees at least $9.95 per hour — the current minimum wage — for services they provide. However, there is an exception under the Alberta Employment Standards Regulation: student internships.Melinda Lombardo, a third-year University of Calgary social work student, completed two unpaid internships to meet her degree requirements.

Photo by Jenica Foster

“We have gotten to the point in Canada where businesses are partnering with schools to get free labour from young people,” Langille said. “It’s preposterous that young people are having to pay tuition for the ability to gain experience in a workplace. You are paying to work.”

Across Alberta, many post-secondary institutions require student internships for degree credit. One University of Calgary social work student, Melinda Lombardo, completed two unpaid internships for her degree.

Lombardo worked part-time, took classes and did her work experience. She said it was a really busy time for her, but it was worth it. She said she learned to apply classroom knowledge to real-life situations and how to communicate with clients and professionals.

“It would be nice if you got paid because it’s hard to go to school, but you could also look at it in a way like it’s a class too,” she said.

Currently in her third year at the University of Calgary, Lombardo said she was unaware of her labour rights.

“I never heard of any rules or protection that I did have,” she said. “I would have liked to have known.”

Lombardo’s uncertainty about internship employment rights is a common problem across Alberta, Langille said, because Alberta doesn’t have a law specifically on interns.

“Legislation is meant to be broad,” he said. “It is read with the intent of extending protections to as many people as possible, so it is given a very liberal definition of what a worker is. If legislature had intended a category of worker that shouldn’t be paid they would have put that in the law.”

Alberta Human Services published a minimum wage fact sheet in September that said the exemptions from the minimum wage include the following employees:

• Students engaged in a work experience program approved by the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education or the Minister of Alberta Human Services
• Students engaged in an off-campus education program provided under the School Act.”

Unpaid internships are illegal in Alberta, unless a student completes one for university credit. This means students must be enrolled in an internship course to qualify, Langille said.

Jay Fisher, public affairs officer for Alberta Human Services, said the system is a trade off.

“The student is being paid with credits,” he said.

Not to mention that student interns are still entitled to all other protections outlined in the Employment Standards Code, like maximum hours worked, health and safety, breaks, and holidays, Fisher said.

However, he said rules start bending when the work doesn’t ultimately benefit employers. For instance, he said if students are doing practicums at graphic design shops and spend all their time observing or doing school assignments, their work doesn’t contribute anything to the companies. In this situation, not all of the employment standards may apply, Fisher said, but it is taken on a case-by-case basis.

Labour abuse still roams Alberta, relying on individuals to alert Human Services of violations, Fisher said.

“There is no job that’s worth your life,” he said. “For any type of employee, if there is something unfair then you should report that situation to us.”

jfoster@cjournal.ca 

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