Interns are being challenged with real work experience.

Interns are legally entitled to receive some benefit from the internship, such as new skills and knowledge.

Though I’m sure there are some internship horror stories out there, generally speaking, internships are a path of opportunity for many students to get a foot in the door — even if it means working long hours with no pay.

I’m going to explain a few of the basic legal aspects that you should be aware of when hiring an intern. Please keep in mind that I am by no means a lawyer, rather just a previous intern who would hate to see internship opportunities disappear due to legal complications.

My last post was about my experience as an intern and a few tips to student interns on how to maximize their internship experience. However, recently my LinkedIn news feed has been filled with articles on various student interns taking legal action against large companies claiming that they have been extorted as “free” employees.

First off, I am so grateful for the opportunity I gained from being an intern so I may be a bit biased. Being an intern and working with some of the top professionals in the industry has greatly aided my learning and understanding of the profession. The internship also gave me the opportunity to list the multinational company as experience on my resume — with references from recognized executives.

Having had such a wonderful experience as an intern I can’t help but worry that these controversies may limit internship opportunities for others. Therefore I write this blog for those employers who are opening their corporate arms to student interns and want to make sure that they avoid legal woes.

An internship is much more than a job title

Though it may seem like common sense to some, others may be surprised to hear that attaching the mere “intern” title to an unpaid employee will certainly not protect you when questioned about employment legislation compliance. The Ministry of Labour lays out six conditions that must be met for unpaid internships to be legal. Otherwise, your company could find themselves in a less than ideal situation — like Fox Searchlight Pictures who were found to have violated minimum wage laws while producing the movie the Black Swan.

Generally, if you hire someone to work for your company, that person is protected by the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) and is entitled to minimum wage. However, the Ministry of Labour makes an exception for interns who are receiving training, but the company must maintain six conditions.

Six conditions required for legal unpaid internships

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour on the web page Are Unpaid Internships Legal in Ontario, if the intern receives training for skills used by the employer’s employees, the intern will be considered an “employee” for the purposes of ESA unless ALL of the following conditions are met:
  1. The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the intern. The intern receives some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  3. The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  4. The training for the intern doesn’t take someone else’s job.
  5. The employer isn’t promising the intern a job at the end of the training.
  6. The employer has told that the intern that he or she will not be paid for their time.

Another exception to the ESA has to do with internship programs that are approved by colleges and universities so that students can receive practical training to complement their classroom learning.

Internships are not free labour

The main purpose of an internship is to provide valuable training and learning experiences that will help the intern launch a career in the field.  If you keep this in mind and follow the six work conditions for internship programs laid out by the Ministry of Labour, then your company should be safe from legal complaints from interns. Most importantly you will be giving back to the community by helping people gain the real job experience they need to launch their career. That’s how I launched my career and I look forward to helping other interns in the future.

I”m not a lawyer, so unfortunately I can’t advise you about whether your unpaid internship program is legal. Please consult with an employment lawyer or contact the Ministry of Labour if you need clarification about the legal aspects of hiring interns without pay.

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