By Haseena Manek
Federal restrictions on unpaid internships are being pushed further and further back on the federal agenda. It was announced last month that the Trudeau government is pushing back plans to regulate unpaid internships to 2019. This would put this issue very close to the next federal election, and bring it up to four years after Trudeau initially addressed it in his campaign leading up to the 2015 election.
Recent news reports note the fact that following the campaign promise to crackdown on unpaid internships, consultations with the Canadian Intern Association fell through at the end of 2015. Rankandfile.ca spoke to Will Webb, the Canadian Intern Association’s Director of Law Reform to ask if Trudeau’s Liberals truly are balking at campaign promises and find out why consultations ended in 2015.
According to Webb, initial consultations ended in 2016 when the Liberal government proposed legislation in 2015 that would permit unpaid internships not associated with an academic program as long as they didn’t exceed four consecutive months or 12 months total.
“They basically adopted a very similar position to what the Conservatives’ proposed in the 2015 Budget Implementation Act,” explains Webb. “And we said ‘This is not in line with our vision. We don’t want to haggle over how many sick days an unpaid intern will get. You’re basically just allowing unpaid internships, for four to twelve months.’ Internships don’t typically last longer than that so the law that they were proposing didn’t match up with what was actually happening. It would have permitted unpaid interns to be exploited.”
Rather than continue engaging on other elements of that legislation the Association made the choice to withdraw from consultations altogether. They were amongst others in the labour movement to criticize the proposed legislation.
“This [was] highly problematic,” continues Webb. “We don’t want to haggle over details when the broader picture, what the law is going to be, doesn’t really do anything to protect interns from being financially exploited.”
In a letter to former Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour MaryAnn Mihychukto, sent in February of 2016, the Association formally expressed their concerns about the 2015 legislation and communicated their desire to withdraw from consultations, saying “we believe it is reckless for our organization to continue to take part in these discussions.”
Following this backlash to the original proposed measures and the Canadian Intern Association dropping out, the federal government hired a new Minister of Employment, Workforce, and Labour and passed new legislation last year, for which regulations are currently being drafted.
“My understanding is the federal government’s response at a systemic level was ‘You know what, we need to rethink how we are doing these regulations’,” says Webb. “They were being criticized by a number of people, including us, because it seemed like they promised something different in the election – cracking down on exploitation rather than legitimizing it through law.”
While the 2017 legislation effectively makes illegal any unpaid internships unless they are associated with academic programs, the new legislation does not have a specified force in effect date. It only stipulates that the specified ban would come into effect when the legislation is signed by the Governor-in-Council, which could be at any time. (On the one hand, this keeps the stipulation flexible, on the other hand there is no fixed deadline). Additionally the Liberals have yet to draft corresponding regulations. The July announcement projects the drafted regulations for the Fall of 2019, which is where frustrations have arisen within the labour movement at the many delays in Trudeau following through on this 2015 campaign promise.
“We think the fact that it puts forth legislation to ban unpaid internships is of course a welcome decision,” says Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff, of the new legislation.
As for the delays: “It’s not something I really quite understand. But now that it’s been raised I think it’s a priority for the government to get it done and we certainly have known that there’s always been some distance between legislation and regulation and the two never work in tandem. The legislation gets passed and there’s a period before the regulations come into effect.”
According to Yussuff, “Most employers I think at the federal level kind of operate on the notion that unpaid internships are now banned federally. But we still need the regulations to be in effect to ensure that if there are some particular circumstances then the regulation will clarify that. We continue to push the government to get that done.”
Given the timing, some worry that there is a chance that this issue could be delayed until after the election and used again as a part of Trudeau’s next campaign platform. In so doing, Liberals would only be using Canada’s students and early-career workers as a political pawn.
Thankfully Webb, who has returned to consultations with the Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, has a more positive outlook. “I think they started out on the wrong foot and that delayed the process by almost two years. And then finally when they came out on the right foot, so to speak, still room for improvement, but when they came out on the right foot they’ve been doing well since late 2017. And I think Minister Hajdu has been a force behind that. And since that point it’s been a positive relationship for us.”
Considering what was tabled by the previous government, this ban on unpaid internships is a clear victory for Canadian labour, if and when legislation and regulations come into effect. However, unpaid work is still unpaid work. Restricting unpaid internships to only internships and placements as part of academic programs is winning a battle, but not the war. With the new ban, there is finally space to discuss the concerns with school-related unpaid internships.
How are students post-secondary students supposed to prepare with dealing with student debt upon graduation when they are required to work for free? How are they supposed to make ends meet? In our chat, Webb cited the case of Alberta student Andy Ferguson who took a paid job alongside an unpaid internship and ended up falling asleep at the wheel leading to a fatal car accident.
On top of financial insecurity and associated risks that result from unpaid work, there is the question of tuition.
“The main concern we have with unpaid internships that are part of school programs is the fact that students now must often pay to do internships. You could be required to pay tuition for a placement or you might have to pay some sort of fee to your career development office. So you’re required to pay money to take on an unpaid internship. That’s a big concern,”
How this might be addressed is still very unclear. Given that education legislation is at the provincial level that means that this issue could be taken up by federal regulations, provincial legislation or by the policies of post-secondary institutions themselves.
“We hope it’ll be addressed in some way,” says Webb. “My sense is that it’s not really on the table right now. What they’re looking to do is introduce non-monetary regulations rather than new legislation that would require employers to pay student interns.” Some examples of the non-monetary strategies to protect interns that could make their way into the new regulations are caps on the amount of hours of work that unpaid internships associated with academic programs can be. “So they are in a certain way, in some way, addressing the issue of safety concerns for interns”
Given the recent election of Premier Doug Ford in Ontario, the likelihood of provincial legislation protecting students and unpaid internships in that province (which has 22 publicly funded universities) seems low.
“I don’t think the political will at the provincial level is really there right now,” says Webb, based in Toronto. “Although we’re certainly not giving up. Fortunately at the federal level it’s there.”
“I think the fact that we got the government to table legislation banning the practise sets a very good example now for other jurisdictions to follow suit on that,” says Yussuff.
Returning to the highly anticipated regulations, Yussuf says “We’re hoping it would match the commitment the government has shown in regard to the legislation they tabled to impose the ban and hopefully the regulation is consistent with those values and there’s no deviation or change.”
“Clearly folks who are going to provide their labour need to be paid for that . I don’t think we should have unpaid [internships],” says Yussuff.
“I think they want to get things right,” Webb says, in conclusion. “As opposed to facing another significant media backlash and poor public perception. They want to take time so they don’t get things wrong like before.”