Genuine Employees Require Genuine Pay
It is against the law to ‘hire’ unpaid “internships” in almost all scenarios, unless you’re hiring a student and providing meaningful work experience for them. Internships are like having a job, except you don’t get paid and are placed under a greater degree of control and direction. In the past, as long as an intern (student) agreed to work without pay the employer was deemed to be complying with the provincial employment standards. The contract, either oral or written, is null and void if it contravenes the provincial law, regardless of what the intern agreed to.
The base expectation, even for student internships that agreed to work for free, is the provincial minimum wage. The employment standards provisions are used as the common law test for what constitutes an employee, which will include the majority of unpaid interns.
The social media company, Reddit, received a public backlash after an online post about their internships suggested that their unpaid positions were illegal. Stories on the backlash were subsequently published in major Canadian newspapers. The internship position posted by Reddit was removed and the company issued a statement saying that they would stop hiring unpaid interns and would offer six months of payment to all current interns. In this case, negative publicity was a better enforcement than the law itself.
The argument offered by proponents of these positions is that they provide valuable experience and connections to otherwise unqualified applicants. This suggests these businesses give interns a chance to show they deserve to be hired. The problem with this is argument, is that so many of these unpaid internships are entry level positions. The individuals could have (and should have) been hired, with pay, into the job with no expectation of prior experience.
Provincial employment laws were adopted to prevent the exploitation and abuse of workers who are in a vulnerable position relative to their employers. Temporary foreign workers may also be included in this category. The Supreme Court of Canada has established that provincial employment laws should be interpreted in a “broad and generous manner” to provide minimum benefits and standards to protect workers.
In Alberta, the Alberta Employment Standards Code has one of the better definitions of what constitutes an employee. Under the Alberta Code, an “employee means an individual employed to do work who received or is entitled to wages.” This is basically anyone who is not a student or a volunteer for a non-profit or a registered charity.
At present, these unpaid positions are still quite prevalent; however, with increased public awareness, there may be an increase in government oversight of internships and minimum pay standards. A company found to be in contravention of the provincial labour laws is liable for fines, an obligation to pay back wages, vacation pay, and statutory holiday pay, and, perhaps most seriously, negative publicity.
So are unpaid internships are illegal: the short answer is that unless the intern is a student, interns need to be paid.
If you have any legal issues resulting from the Alberta employment law, we want to hear from you. Contact the legal team at Lypkie Henderson today.