The Challenge of Unpaid Opportunities

“Political Science Internship Opportunity…” the subject line catches my attention as I scroll through my inbox. As a fourth year student, graduating in just a few months, the question of what I will do after graduation still has no answer. Excited at the mention of a potential opportunity to gain relevant experience, I click on the email.

At first, the opportunity looks promising. The email outlines the benefits of the internship, the responsibilities of the intern, etc. I continue to scroll. I seem to have the necessary qualifications, that’s encouraging. Continue to scroll. Ah, there it is: “This is an unpaid position.” I close the email.

For many students in Ontario, and across Canada, unpaid internships are simply not a viable option. In order to meet the cost of tuition and living expenses, students need a source of income, whether it is through part-time employment throughout their studies or through full-time positions in the summers. Most students cannot afford to work for free. For this reason, unpaid internships pose a particular problem. Primarily because for those students that cannot afford to take an unpaid position, it can be difficult to gain experience in their field of interest.

Fortunately, the provincial government has taken steps to address the problem of unpaid internships. In Ontario, under the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA), interns are considered employees, except in very narrow circumstances. Employees are entitled to all ESA rights, including minimum wage. Other provincial governments across the country have implemented similar legislation. 

However, the legislation as it stands is not enough. In many circumstances, positions that once would have been categorized as unpaid internships are now framed as “volunteer” positions, allowing the employer exemptions from the rules set out in the ESA. Because the ESA policy does not define “volunteer,” or provide a framework through which to verify whether someone is performing the work of a volunteer or of an employee, it is relatively easy for employers to simply replace the word “intern” with “volunteer.” As a volunteer, there is no expectation of wage. This causes the problem of the unpaid experiential learning opportunity to remain in place. Students are again forced to choose between gaining experience through an unpaid “volunteer” position, and earning a wage. 

Therefore, although the enactment of legislation such as ESA has been a step in the right direction in ensuring students are properly paid for their labour, there are still issues that need to be addressed. Eliminating unpaid internships is not the solution – a widespread ban will only result in limited opportunities for students, particularly in fields like politics, journalism, and communications. Instead, the provincial government should begin to invest in programs similar to the Canada Summer Jobs program, which offers wage subsidies to employers that are looking to hire full time students for summer positions.

In order to create a highly skilled workforce, offering students introductory intern-level positions in their respective fields is extremely important. The provincial government has stressed the importance of experiential learning opportunities, particularly in the Building the Workforce of Tomorrow report, coming out of The Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel. In order to promote experiential learning, provincial wage subsidies could significantly increase paid opportunities for students.