Blog > The pros and cons of federal legislation and unpaid internships

The pros and cons of federal legislation and unpaid internships

posted on August 4, 2015

New legislation on labour standards for unpaid interns has been passed by government, and it is being received with applause and criticism. The legislation sets out guidelines for companies and organizations operating within federally regulated industries. It establishes a minimum wage and protection from harassment, moves that are quite positive, but it also allows employers to take on unpaid interns in limited circumstances, and that is causing concern. To some, including the Canadian Intern Association, this legislation defines giving with one hand, while taking with the other.

On July 27, I participated in a consultation on labour standards for unpaid interns operating within federally regulated industries. I was one of many participating in this first meeting; more are planned. This consultation was mandated by the June 23rd passing into law of the Economic Action Plan 2015 Act, No. 1, amending Part II (Occupational Health and Safety) and III (Labour Standards) of the Canada Labour Code (‘the Code’). These amendments are intended to “Provide workplace protections for individuals who are not employees, but who perform activities for an employer for the purpose of acquiring knowledge or experience. These individuals are referred to as interns.”


marine shipping, ferry and port services

air transportation, including airports, aerodromes and airlines

railway and road transportation that involves crossing provincial or international borders

canals, pipelines, tunnels and bridges (crossing provincial borders)

telephone, telegraph and cable systems

radio and television broadcasting

grain elevators, feed and seed mills

uranium mining and processing

businesses dealing with the protection of fisheries as a natural resource

many First Nation activities

most federal Crown corporations


private businesses necessary to the operation of a federal act


The consultation was intended to help the Labour Department to draft regulations related to the implementation of the legislation. We were asked to consider elements of the legislation, not the legislation itself. This made for an interesting / challenging conversation. I pointed to CACEE’s position on unpaid internships , which is essentially this “Know the law, and follow it.” Other participants made an effort to take the conversation to a larger scope, addressing the overall intent of the legislation, and what they saw as its shortcomings.

1.      it does not exceed a period of four consecutive months (or a number of hours over a 12 months period to be specified in regulations);

2.      it is primarily for the benefit of the intern;

3.      it is supervised;

4.      it is not a prerequisite for a job in the employer’s organization nor is the employer obligated to offer employment to the intern;

5.      it does not replace any paid employee; and

6.      the intern is informed in advance and in writing that he or she will not be paid.


Figure 1 Unpaid internship exemptions

I understand their concerns, and can see how they have come to them. As I listened to the discussion, and struggled to form a response, I was reminded that our employer members have expressed a desire for clarity above all in relation to unpaid internships, and this legislation may work against that, creating inequity and confusion because the new federal standard is less stringent than many provincial codes, such as the Ontario Employment Standards Act (2000). Others expressed concern that this new law will allow, in special circumstances, unpaid internships outside of those related to academic programs in federally regulated industries. Many federally regulated employers are large organizations with thousands of employees, and the resources to pay workers. Some of the participants in the consultation asserted that this legislation would open the door to unpaid labour because the restrictions are too lax, and the circumstances under which they would be allowed are not that ‘special’ (See Fig. 1).

Most of our educator members are opposed to unpaid internships for reasons both ethical (it is wrong to expect work without pay) and practical (unfair competition against paid experiential learning). As an Association, it is too early for us to take a firm stance because the true impact of the legislation is yet to be seen; the regulations governing its implementation and application are still being written. The CACEE Board of Directors is monitoring developments regarding this legislation and I will continue to participate in the consultation process. 

In the meantime, I welcome all comments and questions. You can reply via Twitter @followcacee, in our LinkedIn Group, or e-mail me at This is an important piece of legislation – I’d like to hear from you.