Finding an internship can be incredibly stressful, especially when there are so many unpaid internships out there. 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. On top of that, you may not even be paid for the position.
The topic of unpaid internships is certainly a controversial one. Many people are, understandably, against unpaid internships and think they should be banned across the board. They view them as exploitative, particularly towards vulnerable groups of people from low-income households who cannot afford to work for free. Meanwhile, employers see them as a way to receive services while avoiding overhead costs and a long-term commitment with an employee who may not be a good fit.
There are unpaid internships that offer incredible learning experiences and have flexible hours (so you can work a second job). Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you can afford the unpaid internship and if it will be a worthwhile experience.
However, not all unpaid internships are legal but you will still find them on job boards like Indeed. This means the responsibility falls on you to figure out if it is legal or not.
Every province and territory has its own labour laws that regulate the rights of employees. Except for industries that are federally regulated, which include the following (as well as more):
- Air transportation
- Radio and television broadcasting
Unpaid internships in federally regulated industries are illegal unless they are a mandatory part of an educational program.
You won’t find the word “internship” in any codified law and this presents an issue with our understanding of who is considered an “employee” and thus entitled to certain protections. Where there are clear exceptions, they typically pertain to volunteer work or work that is accepted in exchange for school credit or under a co-op program.
Let’s break down what the laws say in each province as they pertain to the communications and marketing fields in particular:
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.
Unpaid work is illegal unless the individual is given training or work experience for a limited period through a program implemented or approved by a government authority or school board or volunteers for a political or charitable institution.
Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia
The laws are unclear regarding internships but include a broad definition of “employee”, in which case interns should be entitled to the minimum wage. However, internships can be unpaid if they are part of a formal education program.
Northwest Territories and Nunavut
Interns must be paid the minimum wage unless they are students completing a work program as part of their schooling.
Unpaid internships are illegal unless the individual is performing work under an educational program approved by a college of applied arts and technology, a university, or private career college (i.e. receiving academic credit or essential training for their profession).
Interns are entitled to minimum wage unless they are working as volunteers for a non-profit organization.
Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Yukon
In these provinces, the laws are unclear as to whether interns qualify as employees and are therefore covered under standard labour regulations and entitled to minimum wage.
How do I ask if the internship is paid?
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask if an internship is paid and how much pay you’ll receive. The employer understands this is crucial information that helps you decide whether to accept the position.
1. See if it’s included in the offer
Many argue 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 an opportunity to express your enthusiasm about the role in a follow-up email.
Write 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.
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 offers. 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?”
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.