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Business perspective on unpaid internships in Canada

young people holding up letters to spell "internships"


This is a follow-up post to my previous post on a business perspective on unpaid internships in the United States.This post deals with more of a Canadian business perspective, and when it comes to internships in Canada, the regulations are anything but clear. There are currently no laws in Canada regulating internships specifically, so provincial employment standards acts are the only form of governance. For the most part, internships in Canada are paid. However, in some sectors (media, PR, journalism), are often internships unpaid. In the United States, some candidates are actually paying employers for internships, and are given no payment in return. Luckily in Canada, things have not gone that far, and Canadians are still fairly unaware of what unpaid internships are all about.

Since there is so little regulation in Canada, much of the standards for employment are set by provincial employment standards acts, which outline when an individual is considered an “employee”. From this information, we can infer what makes an “intern” from what constitutes an “employee”. So should that unpaid internship be a paid internship? Ask yourself these five questions when trying to decide between wages or no wages for an internship. Note – these questions are designed to provide insight, not provide legal guidelines (refer to Andrew’s post for that).

Would the unpaid intern receive similar field-specific training at a post-secondary institution?

If the answer is yes, then the unpaid internship is legitimate. In other words, if the training is similar to the training the unpaid intern would receive at university, then they aren’t considered an employee. Training should include a variety of instructional methods such as supervision, guidance or appraisals, and should exist throughout the duration of the internship. An unpaid intern should be trained in skills that are being used by employees of the company, i.e., not just learning how to operate the coffee machine.

Does the unpaid intern displace existing employees or potential employees at the organization?

If the answer is no, the internship is legitimate. Unpaid interns can’t take the place of paid employees, otherwise the interns themselves should be paid for the labour. If an employer can’t afford to pay their employees, hiring an unpaid intern to do the job is unfair and not legitimate. An unpaid internship is a position that exists in addition to employed positions, as a benefit to the intern.

Is the unpaid internship explicitly unpaid and does it have specified a start date and end date?

If the answer is yes, then the internship is legitimate. Unpaid interns should be aware that they won’t be receiving any monetary rewards for their labour, and that the internship is finite. Similarly, the interns should realize that they are not afforded the right to employment at the completion of the unpaid internship. In other words, interns shouldn’t expect employment just because they have completed an unpaid internship.

Employers have the option to offer a paid position upon conclusion of the internship period.

Can the experience from the unpaid internship be transferred to other, similar employment environments?

If the answer is yes, the internship is legitimate. If an unpaid intern is spending their days fetching coffee and running irrelevant errands, these skills cannot be transferred to similar employment environments. Unpaid interns should be acquiring industry-applicable skills, and not exclusively shuffling pages.

Does the organization receive any benefit from the training of the unpaid intern?

If the answer is no, then the unpaid internship is legitimate. In other words, the training of an unpaid intern should be of no benefit to the organization. The unpaid intern, on the other hand, is the only person gaining any sort of benefit from training. In this sense, the organization providing the unpaid internship is essentially providing a service (relevant training and experience) to an individual, but receiving no benefit. If the unpaid intern were to perform “real work” that were of benefit to the organization, then they would be considered an “employee” and should receive wages. At the same time, its unfair to argue that the organization is receiving no benefit from an intern that spends their day doing irrelevant work (see previous question). In a real case, an intern was hired to create software for a company out of Ontario, but received no wages. The intern filed a complaint because the organization obviously benefited from the unpaid intern’s labour – their software was written for free.

Assessing whether or not an internship should be paid or not paid depends on whether or not they are considered an “employee”. If your answers differed from the previous answers, your unpaid intern may be considered an “employee” and entitled to compensation. Unpaid internships in Canada are tricky, and subject to provincial employment standards. Because there is no set regulation, any issues brought up are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The bottom line is, whether you are considering hiring an unpaid intern, or you are an unpaid intern yourself, educate yourself on your provincial employment standards act to ensure that you are being treated fairly.

Meghan Tooley is a commerce student, active blogger and social media enthusiast from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She often blogs about human resource trends and Canadian labour laws. She writes on behalf of Canada’s Web Shop, a communications firm also based in Winnipeg. Learn more about effective career development and human resource management from Winnipeg recruitment agency People First HR Services.

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