With recruiting season in full swing, many postsecondary students and recent grads are feeling the stress of competing for a limited number of summer internship positions. Amidst a limited number of positions and an increasingly competitive job market, many students are unaware of their labour rights in the workforce. Even in junior positions, you deserve appropriate compensation and recognition for your work.

Paid versus unpaid positions

There are two types of internship positions in Ontario: paid and unpaid. Interns are not automatically considered employees under the Employment Standards Act (ESA) and are therefore not guaranteed certain rights.

While employees can also be interns, not all interns are necessarily considered employees. Different rights and laws apply to interns and employees, and as a student it is critical to understand the difference.

So, what is the difference?

The term “employee” is often used loosely but the ESA uses its own strict definition, which does not include everyone who contributes to the Ontario workforce.

An employee is paid a wage for their work and receives training from the company to carry out their assigned tasks. Their work is important to the business and that business decides that employee’s wage, their responsibilities, and when and where they work.

An intern is usually considered an employee when they are trained by their employer in a skill that is used by other employees in the organization.

Should an individual fulfill these requirements, they are entitled to certain rights and treatment by their employer, such as being paid a minimum wage, receiving overtime pay, and being limited to a maximum of 48 hours of labour per week.

For academic internships, the placement is considered legal if it is similar to that of vocational schools and that the placement benefits the intern, among other criteria.

Exceptions to the ESA

There are exceptions under the ESA, including those who are performing work under a program which has been approved by their university or private career college. Interns who fall under these categories do not qualify for the same rights under the ESA, including monetary compensation.

Despite these exceptions, unpaid internships are illegal in Ontario unless the individual is receiving academic credit, the position is providing training required for a specific profession, or the internship fulfills the six requirements that classify an individual as a “trainee.”

Employers are obligated to treat all those who qualify as employees appropriately and can face prosecution if they fail to do so — even misclassifying an employee can lead to serious consequences.

New regulations for unpaid interns

The laws and regulations surrounding unpaid interns are undergoing changes — unpaid internships in federally regulated industries are now illegal except for academic placements pertaining to the completion of an individual’s degree.

Students entering this form of placement will require certain paperwork issued by their educational institution in order to provide proof of this requirement and the relevance of this work experience to their learning.

This change in regulation was accompanied by the proposed extension of health and safety laws for unpaid interns in this sector, which would provide these interns with some of the standard protections that employees currently enjoy under the ESA.

However, provincial and territorial laws do not reflect the same standards for unpaid interns, but rather they are based around the idea of creating a trickle-down effect and setting a standard for the treatment of interns across the country, both paid and unpaid.

Regardless of the legislative changes that are currently in motion, unpaid interns are still not considered employees under the ESA and are not protected under most employment regulations.

Although the ESA is in place to protect members of the Ontarian workforce, it provides only a minimum standard of treatment for employees and interns.

While recent changes in laws and legislation are working in favour of students entering the workforce, there is always a risk of misunderstandings and potential abuse of their labour.

If you are a student with a prospective internship offer — paid or unpaid — be sure to carefully read your contract, do your research, and inquire about any violations.