On March 28, 2014, two popular Canadian-based magazines, The Walrus and Toronto Life, brought their unpaid internship programs abruptly to an end after Ontario’s Ministry of Labour concluded that such programs were being run in contravention of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (Ontario). The Ministry reached this conclusion when an inspection last December revealed that the magazines were not, amongst other things, paying all of their interns. According to the Ministry, the general rule is that all interns must be paid and must receive other entitlements pursuant to the Act unless the interns perform work under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university. Another exception to the general rule exists if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The training the intern receives is similar to that which is given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained;
  4. The intern’s training doesn’t take someone else’s job;
  5. The intern’s employer isn’t promising the intern a job at the end of his or her training; and
  6. The intern has been told that he or she will not be paid for his or her time.

In light of the narrow exceptions above, other unpaid internship programs across Ontario may suffer the same fate as the unpaid internship programs of The Walrus and Toronto Life when the Ministry embarks on an enforcement blitz this spring. According to the Ministry, this blitz will extend beyond the internship programs of other magazines to include other unspecified sectors.

In light of the potential non-compliance of unpaid internship programs with the Act, Ontario employers who run unpaid internship programs are well-advised to conduct a review of their internship programs and consider risk prevention strategies such as (a) limiting their unpaid internships to co-op placements organized by educational institutions; (b) paying all interns who don’t fall within one of the exceptions in accordance with the Act; or (c) eliminating their unpaid internship programs all together.