Guys, I get it. 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 and think they should be banned across the board. This doesn’t mean all unpaid internships are illegal or even unethical. There are unpaid internships that offer incredible learning experiences and have flexible hours (so you can work a second job). But, not all unpaid internships are legal and follow provincial labour codes.
Every province has different laws surrounding illegal internships. So, how can you tell if your internship is legal or not?
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?
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask if an internship is paid or unpaid, and how much you’ll get paid. The employer 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.
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. 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 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.
August 2019 update: The Canadian government is banning unpaid internships in federally regulated industries unless they are a mandatory part of an educational program (i.e. co-ops).