Interns or just free labour?

By Paul Dewar

Dewar PaulI am privileged to have a fantastic group of young volunteers that help me in my job as Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre. My staff and I are always grateful for their assistance. We do our best to give them a useful and interesting experience working in the office of an MP. But like many young Canadians, the volunteers in my office are contending with mounting student debt – $30,000 on average – and a youth unemployment rate (13.3%) that is double the national average.

Facing these challenges and others, young people across the country are seeking opportunities to gain work experience in a difficult job market. Today, many of these opportunities take the form of unpaid internships. As many as 300,000 Canadians currently work as unpaid interns. Unfortunately, some firms take advantage of legal loopholes to abuse the goodwill and labour of these young people. Stories about the exploitation of unpaid interns by companies and organizations are all too common.

My NDP colleagues and I are strongly committed to improving the working conditions of young workers. The NDP has pressured the Ontario provincial government into shutting down illegal unpaid internship programs at two Toronto magazines.

While the Harper government has not offered any concrete plans to address this issue at the federal level, I am pleased my fellow NDP MP Laurin Liu (Rivière-des-Mille-Îles) has tabled Bill C-636 – the Intern Protection Act. Disturbingly, under current federal labour laws, interns are not protected from sexual harassment, do not have the right to refuse dangerous work, and have no limit on their working hours.

The Intern Protection Act seeks to address these glaring oversights. I am proud the NDP is championing this cause. The Intern Protection Act has two main components: extending legal protections and rights to interns, and implementing limits on the use of unpaid internships.

Under the Intern Protection Act, interns would not work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. They would have a legal right to refuse dangerous work. They would be protected from sexual assault. And they would be entitled to days of rest and holidays.

The act also sets clear rules and conditions on the use of unpaid internships. The internships would have to be educational and provide valuable experience that primarily benefits the intern. Furthermore, intern positions would not be allowed to replace paid employees. Finally, the bill mandates employers explicitly notify interns as to their working conditions and the unpaid nature of the work, and keep records of the hours worked.

The NDP has a clear plan to protect the rights of interns, bring greater fairness for young people in Canada, and help train the next generation of Canadian workers. We hope the government will adopt this plan.

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