I get it, guys. I’ve been through it not too long ago! Finding an internship can be incredibly stressful. From writing cover letters, coordinating interviews and competing with hundreds of other soon-to-be grads, landing your dream internship is a feat in itself. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is one more thing to consider when you’re looking for an internship: is it legal?
The topic of unpaid internships is certainly a controversial one. Many people are, understandably, against unpaid internships. This doesn’t mean that all unpaid internships are illegal or even unethical. There are unpaid internships that offer incredible learning experiences, invest in the intern’s growth and development as a professional and have flexible hours (so you can work a second job). But, not all unpaid internships are legal. Regardless of our stance on unpaid internships as a whole, how can you tell if your internship is illegal?
Every province has different laws surrounding illegal internships. Unpaid internships are illegal across Canada, with the following exceptions:
Unpaid internships are legal if the internship is part of a formal education program. Otherwise, an employer should pay employees the minimum wage.
Interns are considered employees (and are, therefore, entitled to minimum wage) unless the position provides “hands-on” training as part of a formal education program or if you’re training to be a professional in designated fields such as medicine, law, nursing, engineering and accounting.
Unpaid internships are illegal unless:
- They’re given training/work experience for a limited period through a program implemented or approved by a government authority or school board;
- The intern is practicing in certain professions or employed as “student-in-training” for one of those professions.
- The employee works as a volunteer for a religious, philanthropic, political, patriotic or charitable institution.
The laws here are unclear, but legislation “does not allow for unpaid training time.”
Newfoundland and Labrador
The laws in Newfoundland and Labrador are also unclear, but it seems interns can be included in the broad definition of “employee” in the Labour and Standards Act, in which case they are entitled to the minimum wage.
Employees are entitled to minimum wage unless:
- The apprenticeship exception is in effect (in which case they are regulated by separate legislation);
- The training exception is in effect (stating that all persons receiving training under government-sponsored and government-approved plans are not entitled to minimum wage);
- The non-profit exception is in effect (stating that persons employed at a playground or summer camp operate on a non-profit basis).
Unpaid internships are illegal unless the individual is performing work under a program approved by a college of applied arts & technology, a university or under a program approved by a private career college registered under the Private Career Colleges Act.
Interns are entitled to minimum wage unless:
- The student is working during the school year in “an establishment selected by an education institution pursuant to a job induction program approved by the Ministère de l’Éducation”;
- The trainees receiving vocational training are entitled to wages determined by separate legislation;
- It’s a volunteer position.
Saskatchewan & Prince Edward Island
These provinces also have unclear laws. While most employees are entitled to the respective provinces’ minimum wage, the definition of an employee is vague.
How do I ask if it’s an unpaid internship?
Asking If the internship is paid or unpaid, and how much you’ll get paid, will not squash your chances at the role… if you do it right. The job poster understands that this is crucial information when it comes to you making the decision about whether or not to take the position.
1. See if it’s included in the offer
Many argue that it’s best to wait until you’re offered a position before asking questions about pay. Chances are, it’ll be included in the written offer. If not, it gives you a great opportunity to express your enthusiasm about the role in a follow-up email. Something like “Thank you for the offer. I’m very interested in this position for X, Y and Z reasons, and would love to know more information about compensation.”
Depending on your school or program, this may not be an option for you. As a student, I had to take the first offer that was given to me. If waiting for the offer isn’t an option for you, there’s still hope!
2. Showcase your interest in the role and your experience during the interview.
Show the employer your genuine interest in the role and the opportunities/challenges it has to offer. At the end of your interview, make sure to have some questions ready to indicate you’ve done your research on the company. These can include questions like “What do you think are important qualities for someone to succeed in this role?” or “What do you like best about working for this company?” And towards the end, you can ask, “Will I be compensated monetarily for this role? And if so, how much can I expect to be paid?”
3. Contact HR
If all else fails, reach out to the company’s HR representative or department. They may not be able to negotiate a salary with you, but it’s a great starting point and can help avoid an awkward conversation with your potential future boss. And it will save you time if taking an unpaid internship isn’t an option.
Finding an internship should be an exciting process! This is a rare opportunity for you to get practical work experience while also benefiting from the mentorship from your boss. Whether you’re open to working at an unpaid internship or not is completely your decision, but working at an illegal unpaid internship is never a good idea. Make sure you know your local laws, your own deal-breakers and what the internship is offering so that you can make an educated decision that will have a positive impact on your development and future career.