Unpaid Internships: Are They Legal?

by Thom Tracy

2 min read

For many university students and newly graduated young adults, participating in unpaid internships provides necessary practical experience and opens the door to future positions, either within the same company or within a specific industry. The employment and labour laws in Canada vary significantly from one province to the next, so the legality of an unpaid internship depends entirely upon the province where the internship is to be completed. Before taking on free interns for your small business, it is important to know your province’s rules regarding such work.

Alberta

The Employment Standards Code of Alberta allows unpaid internships if they are part of an educational program. Hired interns, based on the language used to define their employment, may or may not be entitled to the province’s minimum wage.

Manitoba

Unpaid internships are illegal in this province unless they meet one or both of two specific exceptions:

  • The internship is part of a certified program for work experience.

  • The internship provides training for specified professions.

All other internships must pay Manitoba’s minimum hourly wage.

Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island

Saskatchewan’s Labour Standards Act leaves the legality of unpaid internships unclear. Most employees are entitled to receive the province’s minimum wage. However, because the definition of an employee includes an unclear “entitled to remuneration” phrase, it is, as yet, uncertain if interns must be paid for their labour.

Similarly, New Brunswick’s Employment Standards Act does not clearly state that interns are entitled to minimum wage. The language of Prince Edward Island’s Employment Standards Act also leaves the legality of unpaid internships in question.

Newfoundland & Labrador and Nova Scotia

The Labour Standards Act of Newfoundland & Labrador includes a broad description for employees that likely legally requires interns to be paid. Internships completed under a formal educational program, however, can be unpaid.

Nova Scotia’s Labour Standards Code is worded similarly and has the same rules regarding interns that fall under an educational program.

Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec

Unpaid internships are illegal in Ontario unless they fall under one of three narrow exceptions:

  • The internship is part of a program approved by a university, college, or secondary school board.

  • The internship provides training for specific professions, such as accounting or law.

  • The internship meets one of the six conditions detailed in Ontario’s Employment Standards Act necessary to define the intern as a trainee.

British Columbia regards unpaid internships in the same way. The singular difference is that this province’s act does not include Ontario’s third exception.

Quebec’s Act Respecting Labour Standards has provisions for unpaid interns similar to Ontario, but Quebec replaces the trainee exception with an exception that allows unpaid interns to work for nonprofit organizations.

Federal Internships

Interns working at federally regulated organizations – such as airlines, banks, or the federal government – are governed by the Canada Labour Code. The laws regarding work under federal jurisdiction make no exclusions for trainees or students, simply mandating that any intern performing work, which includes training, must be paid at least minimum wage. In 2016, Canada’s lawmakers raised issues with the lack of clarity in the Canada Labour Code.

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