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Internships and the law


You might have heard or read something in the past few months about internships—their status with respect to employment standards and whether it’s even legal to employ such workers without paying them. It’s no small issue. Many organizations rely on unpaid interns to do work for which they can’t afford to hire an employee proper. And many individuals rely on internships to gain the experience they need to enter the workforce proper.

Shaun Smith writes on

The problem is that there is no legal definition of an intern. For example, earlier this summer, following a series of media stories questioning the legality of internships, the Ontario Ministry of Labour took the unprecedented step of adding a fact page to their website entitled Internships in Ontario: What you need to know. The page makes it clear that, while no regulations pertaining to unpaid internships exist within the law, internships must nonetheless conform to a strict set of criteria to be considered legal.

Lawyer Andrew Langille notes that, “There is widespread mischaracterization of interns as persons receiving training, when in actuality they are employees.”

Check the details on And remember: this isn’t an issue that affects only not-for-profits or charities. Any organization that utilizes unpaid interns should understand the legal relationship. Look for resources specific to your jurisdiction.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Internal Controls, Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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3 thoughts on “Internships and the law
  • Jon P says:

    I’d love to see Canada make it illegal for employers to hire interns for no pay. For those companies that claim they can’t get by without unpaid internships; I think there is something fundamentally wrong with your business if you can’t get by without paying your workers.

    The ONLY place where these types of opportunities should be acceptable are in the charitable sector and they should be labeled volunteer work and only be permitted to be on a part-time basis.

    Every time someone takes a job for free your enabling the employer to not have to pay someone to do the job and therefore you’re only contributing to the reason you have to take an unpaid internship in the first place.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for the comment Marcia! I didn’t hear this particular interview, but it is a common attitude, and I see advertisements for unpaid internships all the time.

    It seems crazy to me, but I guess if a person is still living at home, or has a part-time job to pay for necessities, then undertaking an internship might appear reasonable when there seems to be no other appropriate paid work.

    IT seems to devalue the work though, and I doubt the claims that organizations rely on unpaid interns or they wouldn’t be able to function. But I also doubt that such arrangements are going to go away in the near future, whether they are legal or not.

  • Marcia Scheffler says:

    6:45 am on March 24 I’m pretty sure I heard business commentator Michael Hlinka on CBC radio tell youth (16-25 age group) to work for free for 3 months or so if they can’t get a job. Did I hear correctly? I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet!!! Did anyone else hear this? Unless it is a coop, internship, or volunteer position (would not be done by a paid worker)- this contravenes the ESA. Yes its a tough job market out their for young people especially in the GTA- but should we really encourage youth to work for nothing? This will result in less jobs available not more if employers find they can get workers for free!