The debate on the morality of unpaid internships


WEB-Intern Photo-Vaikunthe Banerjee

Companies like Vancouver-based HootSuite under fire for the practice

By Joel Mackenzie
Photos by Vaikunthe Banerjee

The ballad of the unpaid intern is far from new, but is one that is starting to be sung a little louder. Unpaid internships in British Columbia are prevalent and undertaken by many BC graduates to gain experiences in their fields of choice, despite being technically illegal in the province.

One Vancouver-based company came under fire recently for offering unpaid internships. The digital media company HootSuite earlier this year received much online criticism for doing so and has since promised to provide full payment and interest to unpaid interns working from October 2012 to April 2013.

The company is not unique in offering such positions: they are common in many employment sectors, prominently in journalism for local newspapers and radio stations, in marketing, and even in organic farming. Nationally, the University of Toronto Students’ Union recently called on Ontario’s Minister of Labour to end unpaid internships, stating that 300,000 Canadians are “illegally misclassified” as interns, trainees, and non-employees, according to The Huffington Post.

However, not all unpaid internships violate the BC Employment Standards Act — such as strictly educational internships — illegal internships are defined as involving an employee, or a person completing labour or services performed for an employer, and not being paid at least the BC minimum wage. Practicums are separated from internships in the act, as they may be unpaid, and involve practical training that is part of the formal education process completed for school credit.

Many are torn by the idea of unpaid internships. David Lindskoog, a career advisor for SFU’s Surrey campus, believes that there’s not really an easy answer either way. “From a student’s perspective there are compelling reasons to do one if you can . . . I think a lot of students out there are . . . in a situation in which any experience is better than no experience.”

Lindskoog continued, “From a systemic perspective . . . personally I think there’s kind of a fundamental problem with unpaid internships in that, not everyone can afford to work for free . . . If your life situation is such that you can afford to take that hit, then you’re gaining an advantage on others who don’t have that opportunity.”

Douglas College student Eric Wilkins disagrees with what he calls the “slave labour” of unpaid internships. It is wrong for an intern to have to complete “work that would ordinarily have to be done by someone else” without being compensated, he says. “For many students already burdened with loans, a full-time unpaid internship can be a daunting, if not impossible prospect.”

Wilkins explains, “The line between practicums and internships . . . has to be erased. Practicums are internships; the fact that practicums are mandatory for completion of certain credentials doesn’t change the work that students have to do.”

Liam Britten on the other hand, a Douglas graduate and current SFU student, finds internships to be “an accepted part of many career trajectories.” In his personal experience with two unpaid internships in the past, he received “invaluable . . . guidance and practical instruction from working professionals,” and was allowed the “opportunity to make mistakes and grow from them, [which] obviously wouldn’t be tolerated from a paid, full-time employee.”

Britten sees internships as a stepping stone, and explained how “Regular staff always have a soft spot for someone who will do [work] for free, especially if you show a good attitude in the process. It brings respect.”

Lindskoog offers this advice to students who are considering completing an unpaid internship: “Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons . . . make sure that you’re aware of your rights in the Employment Standards Act, [that] there’s actually a training or educational component to the internship, and that it’s not just you going in and doing the same thing that a paid employee would be doing anyways.”

Lindskoog does suggest that it is important to remain in touch with the people you meet during an internship, to keep up those connections. “You’re going to take some things out of that,” he said, “You’re going to learn more about yourself [and] about the industry you’re working in, about what’s actually out there and whether you like or dislike these things at all.”


  1. From a broader perspective, we have to ask what this practice does to the concept of meritocracy, where we (allegedly) succeed based upon how well we can perform our job. The only people who can afford to work for no wages are already well off, meaning the people who actually advance in society already have far more resources than the average person. Do this for a decade or so and you’ve got yourself a very nicely stratified society of the haves and the have-nots. Stop me when this sounds like fiction…