Learning experience or free labour?
Roxana Becheanu
Ryersonian Staff
Uploaded on 3/26/2013 5:27:36 PM

Students who take on co-ops in programs like science and engineering are almost always paid.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In an economy where few things are free and time is money, many businesses and corporations are finding free labour by taking on undergraduate and graduate interns, instead of co-op students. 

Ryerson and other Ontario universities offer these unpaid internships and work placements to students in a variety of programs, and the Employment Standards Act (ESA) allows companies to not pay their interns if the placement is part of their degree requirement. But a lot of students don’t know that, after graduation, unpaid internships become illegal unless employers meet all of the criteria in the ESA — and that’s something that most companies fail to do.

Andrew Langille is a Toronto-based lawyer who has been leading the movement to ensure that all internships are paid; especially if employers are profiting from the work of student interns. Unpaid internships are illegal after graduation because under provincial and federal labour law, anyone who works set hours and produces work that directly profits the employer is an employee and entitled to receive the minimum wage.

“If you’re doing work an employer would pay to get done, and the employer derives benefits, then the person in question would have to be compensated for it. The employer shouldn’t get around it by engaging in wordplay,” says Langille.

The main issue, according to Langille, is that some employers are dancing around paying their interns by taking students on as interns as opposed to co-op students or volunteers. With no real regulation in place, there’s no incentive to ensure businesses aren’t abusing the system by giving interns menial tasks unrelated to their area of study and having them work long hours.

There appears to be a great deal of confusion within the law itself as to what the precise definition of an “internship” should be. While co-operative education placements are generally always paid, with students being provided with a significant amount of training, and done over the course of a few months, internships fall into a legal grey area.

The complication arises with unpaid internships taken on after graduation. While internships with a school program do not have to be paid under Ontario law, employers taking on interns outside the school system have to pay their interns unless they meet a stringent list of criteria set out in the ESA.

“But the criteria is so difficult to meet that virtually all internships (offered to graduates) in Ontario are illegal.” says Langille.

“If the government started cracking down on companies who misuse interns, I have no doubt that corporations would start paying,” says Langille, while pointing a finger at the government as the power responsible for ensuring corporate labour regulation. But he says while students at Ryerson and other universities are participating in internships for course credit, the responsibility lies with the educational institutions to ensure a safe learning environment.

Internship advisers at Ryerson do sometimes have to pull students out of placements when companies do not provide interns with program-specific work, or if they are mistreated in any way. Most faculties have a set of criteria similar to those set out in the ESA for deciding which employers are suited to taking on interns.

“We don’t accept everyone, and we would never put a student in harm’s way working for an agency or an agency in harm’s way working with a difficult student, but it does happen,” says Sheldon Reinsilber, the student affairs and internship co-ordinator for the school of child and youth care at Ryerson.

“We have a school contract, and the agency has to meet certain criteria including that the work they give students has to be relevant to the program they are in, and interns must always be supervised,” says Reinsilber.

The internship co-ordinator and associate professor for Ryerson’s radio and television arts (RTA) program, Marion Coomey,  says that she meets with every fourth-year student during September and October to discuss the type of work they’d like to do. She says in most cases, placements have become better at giving students “meaningful work,” but she agrees with Reinsilber that bad matchups do happen.

“Some bosses don’t know what to do with interns, because they are unorganized. If an intern feels as though he or she is not benefiting from the placement, they can contact me and I’ll make myself the bad guy and speak with the supervisor,” says Coomey, adding that at Ryerson advisers take care to avoid these circumstances.

Interns take on internships to learn new skills in their specific trades. 

But often they are assigned secretarial tasks such as photocopying documents, taking messages, filing and going on the dreaded coffee run for office staff. In these situations, universities and colleges often pull out their students.

According to the ESA, employers are only allowed to take on unpaid interns if the training they provide is similar to the training being given in schools, if the training benefits interns by teaching them new skills, if the employer derives little or no benefit from the intern’s work, if the interns don’t displace employee positions, if there is no promise of a job at the end of the work term and if the intern is advised that they won’t be paid for their work.  

Employers must meet all of the criteria in order to legally be exempt from paying their interns. If they don’t, interns are considered employees and the company must pay them at least a minimum wage.

But there is an exception. Students who take on internships for school credit or as part of their post-secondary programs do not have to be paid under the law.

Michael Kohras graduated from Ryerson’s RTA program last year. He interned at Cineplex Productions for two months as part of his program requirements. 

He says he learned a lot of new skills and made a lot of great networking connections during his time with the Toronto-based production house. 

But financially, he says, times were tough.

“The experience is a double-hit — not only are you not getting paid to work full-time hours, but you’re also paying tuition to be there … It makes it extremely hard to pursue other income opportunities,” says Kohras.

“I was working at restaurants during school on the weekends,” he says, adding that he had to keep his part-time job during that time in order to be able to pay his bills.

At Ryerson, internships offered can run anywhere from six weeks to four months, and they are almost always unpaid, particularly those offered in faculties such as communication and design, and community services. 

Ryerson offers co-operative education as well, but generally only for students studying science, mathematics, engineering or business technology.

Sandra Owen is a researcher and intern co-ordinator for FMC Environmental Solutions. She says that her company pays its Ryerson and University of Toronto co-op students, no matter the circumstance. 

The environmental research firm hires students to assist with research and lab work and pays students $12.50 per hour, well above minimum wage.

“At the end there is a tax credit from the universities in question, but we’re not paid up front to do this. We are mentoring; so the student benefits and we benefit.”

FMC also receives compensation through grants for training students from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC), so the firm has a variety of incentives to pay its students. Owen says that she believes students perform at a much higher level and with more enthusiasm when they don’t have to worry about their finances.

“Students would definitely have different attitudes toward the work if they weren’t getting paid here. There should be a small wage of some sort for students from either grants or the corporations themselves so students don’t build resentment for their placements.”

But while government grants are common for employers in science and engineering fields, employers in child care and communications do not see the same assistance. Often they can only offer unpaid internships. Because of this, at universities like Ryerson, co-op programs are only available in fields such as science and engineering, in partnership with employers who get the financial incentive to pay their students. Langille says that this practice is discriminatory, but even without the grants, all employers should offer some sort of compensation.

“There is a deeper problem here with the disparity between paid and unpaid internships particularly in female dominated fields. Even within post-secondary education systems, often paid internships are in male dominated fields,” he says.

Employers are now looking for employees who already have two to three years of experience in the field, making it almost impossible to start a career without participating in some sort of work placement program. This means that students find themselves taking on consecutive unpaid internships after graduation in the hopes of getting hired. These are often illegal. 

“I think what schools can do to help is if they have internships available, they should be run on a co-op basis,” says Kohras.

Langille agrees. he says there is no reason why corporations can’t afford to offer the students some sort of remuneration, and universities should work with employers who are willing to pay to encourage change in the system. He also has recommendations for what the government can do to help students.

“Targeted tax credits should be provided for employers paying interns. They are being used already. Co-op tax credits exist and companies get something like $3,000 back for taking on a co-op student,” says Langille who adds that there needs to be some sort of corporate regulatory system in place.

It seems that the voices of intern advocates are being heard. 

The Ministry of Labour has recently “clarified” the ESA on its webpage to emphasize that all of the listed criteria must be met by employers to allow them to take on unpaid student labour. The last major change to the act was made in 2000. Langille says this is a small step in the right direction, but without a regulatory body, the change is not significant and won’t get rid of illegal unpaid internships.

“It’s a swindle. There are laws prohibiting unpaid labour, laws that were hard fought to obtain and this is a shredding of the labour laws to line corporate coffers.”

With files from Olivia Stefanovich.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 27, 2013.



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Comments (2)
Very well written article. Should have pitched it to a bigger organization where it could get more play!
Very well written article. Should have pitched it to a bigger organization where it could get more play!
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