Your internship: A gateway to great experience or questionably legal unpaid labour?

It started with a familiar tweet, “Looking to hire an intern to work 20-30 hours a week!” The actual post pointed out how great the opportunity would be for a young journalism graduate to start his/her career.

One person tweeted, “It’s hardly a career if you’re not paying them. Just saying.”

In recent years internships have exploded – offering the tease of valuable work experience and a potential job in the future. In fact, some companies like Versace and Vogue auctioned off their internships which went for ridiculous sums of money.

This brings up the constant question about the value of internships vs. companies using young people as free labour. We’ve all read the stories about hopeful interns arriving on their first day of work only to find that they’re responsible for fetching coffee and yes, photocopying.

Unexpectedly the Ontario Ministry of Labour tweeted to me, “Unpaid internships are generally not legal in Ontario unless part of a recognized academic program.”

When I spoke to Matt Blajer from the Ontario Ministry of Labour to follow up on that tweet, he confirmed it and added, “Employees must be paid at least the Ontario minimum wage of $10.25 per hour for general employees.”

An employee, as defined by the Employment Services Act is:

An “employee” is defined under s. 1 of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) to include a person who receives training from an employer. However, the definition excludes a trainee who is receiving training from an employer in the skills used by that employer’s employees, if all of the conditions below are met:

      1. The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.


      2. The training is for the benefit of the individual.


      3. The person providing the training derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained.


      4. The individual does not displace employees of the person providing the training.


      5. The individual is not accorded a right to become an employee of the person providing the training.


    6. The individual is advised that he or she will receive no remuneration for the time that he or she spends in training.

Or in simpler terms, if your internship was arranged by your college, university or vocational school where it is monitored by your school, then it’s legal. If it’s not part of an accredited educational program – and doesn’t meet all six requirements listed above – then it’s probably illegal.

Probably because Blajer does caution that the Ministry can’t make sweeping statements about unpaid internships. “Each circumstance is unique,” he said. “It will depend on the decision of an Employment Standards Officer and ultimately, the Ontario Labour Relations Board.”

Blajer says the easiest way to report a suspected illegal internship is to call the Employment Standards Information Centre at 1-800-531-5551