National study scrutinizes unpaid internships

Graphic by Kate Turner
Graphic by Kate Turner

There is currently no data available nationally that evaluates internships in Canada — and James Attfield and Isabelle Couture are looking to change that.

The two University of Victoria graduate students conducted a nationwide survey of internships, looking at its impacts, legalities and involvement of the worker.

To them, their research will “fill the knowledge gap.”

“It’s really disappointing that it’s taken a couple of masters students to look at this at this point,” said Couture. “There is no information out there whatsoever.”

Roughly 20 interns were interviewed and gave feedback on their experiences and personal backgrounds.

The results showed a significant distinction between interns who were paid and those who were not.

“Some of the interviews — about 25 per cent — were pretty positive,” Attfield said.

“Those with larger organizations that often paid their interns said they were treated like adults and they were given very rewarding experiences, responsibility and chances to really contribute.”

However, the remaining 75 per cent felt uneasy about the internship they took.

“They felt really disillusioned with everything, very down,” Attfield explained, “As though they had made bad choices, that they were failures.”

Couture also noticed trends towards which industries typically favored unpaid interns.

“Marketing, public relations, social media and journalism,” she said. “Those kinds of fields came out as the most common for unpaid or underpaid internships.”

Another underlying issue that was brought to light was the discussion of whether internships led to eventual employment.

Those who were not paid were less likely to be hired, according to the study’s results.

“The employer is less involved with the interns that aren’t being paid,” Couture explained when asked about transitioning from intern to employee.

Attfield added, “if you’re an employer and you’ve been paying someone for months, you do have some sort of investment in them and you want to see them grow.”

“Whereas if you’re not paying them who cares? Get rid of them and hire a new guy to work for free.”

Lizz DiCesare, an unpaid intern for a non-for profit organization, Raising Rhythm, knows that her PR internship will not end in a job.

“The group is really small, they just became a group a year ago and all the staff are volunteer-based and it’s a challenge to get funding,” DiCesare said. “At this point I don’t really mind, but if I had gone into it expecting to be paid then it might be a little different.”

One of the national concerns about unpaid internships is the lack of legal regulations in place to protect interns.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association (CIA) calls unpaid internships “problematic.”
She believes that the government needs to improve the laws to protect interns.

“Generally across Canada unpaid internships for academic credit are legal, but any other unpaid internship in a private sector that isn’t for a credit is against the law,” she said. “Those interns are entitled to minimum wage.”

These classifications between legal and non-legal internships of course vary across provinces and differ from federally-regulated companies.

British Columbia released a formal definition of what defines an intern and their required wages.

Ontario also has some regulations in place, according to Attfield. “Most of the internships that occur in Ontario are legal,” he said.

However, despite existing laws or definitions, the U of Victoria students hope that their research will generate some awareness on an under-discussed issue.

To them, this study is just a “baby step.”

“I really just hope that people will pay attention to this,” Attfield said, referring to employers.

“It will be harder to sweep under the rug.”

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