Unpaid Internship Regulation in Canada

About a year ago I was at a cafe in Vancouver and saw a flyer for an unpaid internship program. The program in that flyer was exploitive, racist, and preyed on New Canadians' lack of awareness about employment standards. It got me so annoyed that I reached out to several of our competitors - companies and schools that organize (good) internships. Together over the course of about a year, and a half dozen meetings, we put together regulations for private language school internship programs. These regulations sought to protect students from predatory agencies like the one that sent out that gross flyer.

Back in January, these regulations were presented to an accrediting body called Languages Canada, an organization that regulates almost all of Canada's language schools. After a vote by their membership, these new internship regulations were approved.

So, what do they say about unpaid internships? The regulations (which FYI will be monitored and enforced by a third party) say that all unpaid internships must meet these requirements:

  1. Internships must be an integrated part of a course of studies, and a requirement for graduation
  2. The internship cannot be longer than the period of studies, a 50:50 rule applies
  3. It must be for the benefit of the intern, with no more than a third of it for the benefit of the company
  4. All host companies must be told about the limits of the internship and their responsibilities to the student
  5. Companies must provide students with a written internship description, describing what they will do (no coffee runs, no hours of data entry, no weeks of photo copying)
  6. The internship organizer must do research on the host, and ensure that it is a legitimate business and can support the student's learning
  7. Regular reports must be done by students and the host company to make sure the internship is done as described, and the student has a chance to learn
  8. A conflict resolution policy is put in place, to allow students to be moved from one internship host to another if the internship host isn't living up to their obligations
  9. Students must be evaluated at the end of their internships in order to determine if learning objectives have been met

Like I said above, the goal of these regulations is to protect students from exploitive internships. There are a lot of people out there who will say that an unpaid internship is by definition an exploitive internship. We strongly disagree. Unpaid programs have a place within education, provided they offer significant benefits to the intern and are truly a form of training and not just work by another name.

A million years ago I did a month-long unpaid teaching practicum in Africa - and it was absolutely fantastic. My practicum was observed, I received feedback, I wasn't put in to teach a regular class for which people paid fees, instead a special class was created, and the school didn't make money off of it. The benefit in that case was almost entirely for me alone. Hopefully the students learned something - though likely, they just learned to appreciate their real teachers much more.

Under the new regulations, internships will be much like my teaching practicum: monitored, measured, and relevant to studies.

So that is what we did with the ESL industry. But that doesn't touch career colleges and universities, let alone the vast unregulated and I suspect illegal market for non-student internships. Look on Craigslist and you can see dozens of ads for blatantly exploitive internships. Placements where students (or even graduates) are asked to take over social media or do filing, or act as a personal assistant - all with no compensation whatsoever. There's not even any pretence or learning, the benefit to the intern is summed up with one word - 'experience'. Utter crap.

We have the word 'experience' in our name: Experience Education. But notice the second word there. It's the education part that makes the experience part worthwhile. Without education, the only thing an unpaid intern is experiencing is regret.

We're hoping to change this.

Now, those standards we helped create for the ESL sector - we live by those in all of our programs. But not everyone does ... yet. In Ontario, the provincial opposition has proposed new government rules for unpaid internships:

The NDP would like to see the government take several concrete actions immediately, including developing a definition of intern and limiting the length of internships.  Calling the issue a “no-brainer,” Natyshak says regulating internships is something that all parties should be able to find consensus on, even before the spring budget.

We support this proposal. We believe that a clear definition of an internship is desperately needed in Ontario, and in every province.  Limiting the duration of placements is also a great idea. Our dream model for regulation is France. In France, unpaid internships are limited to 2 months, beyond 2 months, interns must be paid a stipend. Interns cannot do work normally done by an employee, and the placement must be in some way connected to their studies.

Obviously wishing for it isn't going to make it so, no more than hoping an opposition party gets a bill passed in a Canadian legislature.

Instead of sitting on the sidelines then, our company is launching discussions over the next few weeks and months with other industry stakeholders; internship organizers, companies hosting interns, schools and colleges, with the goal of creating clear rules, and a 'seal of approval' for quality internship programs. This will extend what we have done with ESL/FSL schools to all other types of interns.

Any organization interested in participating is welcome to email us at contact@experienceeducation.ca care of me - Robert Jago (managing director, ee).