Vancouver’s illegal internships

BC may have recently seen a rise in minimum wage, but from the “summer student” postings appearing in my employment feed it appears there are many Vancouver businesses who expect young people to work for little or no money at all.

Particularly prevelant in the Communications sector, a number of employers are attempting to lure young people to work for nothing for several months with the promise of potential future work. To whit:  HootSuite, Habitat Enterprises, and Vision Investment Properties – which I assume are all financially solvent companies – are posting “internships” for $500 per month or less. Even worse? The hospitality sector – long a low-wage bastion – has decided that any wages are too much. Tempted by the possibility of free labour, the Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver has two unpaid “internships” currently posted – one in Reservations and one in Housekeeping.

Now, the last time I checked, even the toothless Employment Standards Act in BC makes this practice illegal. By definition in the Act, “An “internship” is on-the-job training offered by an employer to provide a person with practical experience…… If the duties performed by interns fall within the definition of  “work” contained in the Act, the intern falls within the definition of “employee”, and the agency using the services of an intern falls within the definition of “employer”, internships will be considered “work” for the purposes of the Act.” Apprentices and those undergoing training for employment must also be paid at least minimum wage while completing their period of qualification. The intern, apprentic and trainee all differ from someone doing a practicum, which is work completed as part of a formal education program.

If you take a look at any of these job postings, it’s not hard to see that these companies are looking for interns to work at a quasi-professional, employee level. For example, Vision Investments is looking for a Creative Writer (copywriter from what I can tell) to perform the following:

  • Conduct research to obtain factual information, utilizing sources such as: newspaper accounts and interviews;
  • Review, submit for approval and revise written material to meet personal standards and satisfy needs of Vision Investment Properties;
  • Select subjects or topics for writing projects based on personal interest and writing specialty or assignment from the team leader;
  • Collaborate with other writers on specific projects;
  • Confer with team leader to discuss development changes or revisions;
  • Verify the factual content of written work;
  • Conduct interviews with people either face to face, over the telephone or by email;
  • Submit material for publication in the required and expected format;
  • Rewrite and adapt material (and sometimes the work of others) for alternative formats;
  • Produce web-based real estate e-books
  • Exercise self-discipline and time-management;
  • Encourage and act upon critical feedback in the most appropriate manner;
  • Be prepared to rewrite and revise work (often several times) following feedback;
  • Work with social media accounts to increase web presence;
  • Find, pursue and maintain knowledge of the real estate market in North America.

A pretty hefty list of responsibilities for someone receiving only $125 per week, wouldn’t you say? I would suggest, looking at this list, it would be difficult for Vision Investments (whose mission btw – is to create wealth through real estate investment) to argue that this “intern” is not an employee under the law.

See, where the intern law gets sticky in BC is around the issue of whether the duties performed by the intern constitute “work” – but if you look at any of these positions, you have to ask – if this isn’t “work” then what is it? These ads don’t emphasize mentorship, a chance to learn from an industry leader or anything other than what qualifications and skills the “intern” must have, and what tasks they will be expected to complete in their summer position. They look and feel no different from any other employment-wanted ad. Except that they are labelled in a particular way (requiring the applicant to be a student), and offer no wages.

Now, I’m all for students getting a chance at some real-world work experience, and I certainly don’t expect employers to pay a professional salary for someone who hasn’t ever worked in the field. But there are excellent programs which facilitate this already – in the form of Co-operative Education. I participated in the SFU Co-operative Education program during my undergraduate degree (in Communications) which gave me:

  • credit towards my degree,
  • excellent work experience and make contacts in my field,
  • a decent wage ($14 per hour which seemed like a lot at the time) to help fund my schooling,
  • a permanent job in my field as a result of networking and experience.

As a working class student living on my own, working for free over a whole summer would have never been an affordable option – and that was back in the days when Vancouver was still affordable (and my rent was only $300 per month in a shared house). I can only believe that the only students taking these unpaid jobs are those who have no financial pressures at home. The worst part is, those students who take these internships (eagerly, if I am to understand correctly articles I have read) are really partnering with unethical companies to drag down wages and working conditions across the board in Vancouver. More downward wage pressure in one of the most expensive cities in North America? This is not the direction we want to be going.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has noticed this particular trend in the last couple of years – as there a few decent articles out there which are worth a read for those of us concerned about this negative workplace trend. Personally, I’m going to start reading the employment listings a little more carefully in this run-up to summer. Not only am I going to start writing to the Employment Standards Branch, and my MLA, but I’ll be sure to stay away from any business exploiting young workers like this. (HootSuite, I’m looking at you – I will be moving my social media management away from your company at the earliest opportunity).

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8 Comments on “Vancouver’s illegal internships

  1. This is a great article! I appreciate the researched information. I am finishing off schooling at BCIT in the New Media and Web Development program and looking for a practicum was tough. I understand that being for schooling, it is unpaid; The requirement is only 3 weeks. But reputable companies sent replies back to myself and all of my classmates stating that 3 weeks was not long enough, and that they would only take 8-12 week interns, unpaid. I am not in a financial situation to be able to take that type of situation on and am frankly appalled at the amount of free labour in this industry. It is tough enough to get through schooling while not working much at all, let alone working afterwards for no pay. And without a job prospect at the end of the internship. I acknowledge the amount of mentoring that would go into having an intern, but I know that many of my classmates were already working on projects by day 3. Where are all the decent companies hiding? And how do we change the state of internships in BC?

  2. Hi Megan,
    John Blown here from 6S Marketing. I think this is an issue in our industry and I agree it needs to be talked about.

    But first I need to set the record straight. We do not offer illegal unpaid internships.

    The only time we offer unpaid internships is with BCIT – they have a 6 weeks internship program where they receive course credit. Over the last year, and in the last few months we have had a number of interns – all paid.

    We have a policy that we pay interns if they are not receiving course credit. Even then, we sometimes pay our interns. We have had a number of interns from UBC and SFU and we have paid them.

    Full disclosure – in 12 years of business we did one unpaid internship a number of years ago outside of the BCIT program. It lasted 4 months and involved 2 interns. 1 one of those interns is still employed with 6S Marketing. That is 1 in 12 years. And as I mentioned the only unpaid internship program we participate in now is the BCIT one which lasts 6 weeks.

    Further to that we quite often hire our BCIT interns. I think we have hired 60-70% of them – its a chance for us to see if there is a fit before hiring.

    I was a starving student with no experience not that long ago (or at least it feels that way). We take our ethics very seriously and we treat our team with respect and value everyone. If you speak with anyone that works or has worked here – they will tell you the same.

    We take our reputation very seriously, and as mentioned we do not hire illegal interns, so when I saw our name mentioned in the article this morning, I just about spat out my cereal.

    I’m all for talking about this issue, and think its great that this is being talked about.

    If you would like to chat about this further please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Best Regards,

    • Hi John

      I appreciate your comment. As this article is now almost a year old, I can’t remember exactly what your posted internship said at the time – but you will note that I didn’t claim you were offering an unpaid internship – but one that was low-paying. My claim that internships that do not pay minimum wage is illegal rests on a definition of labour standards which I don’t believe is currently being enforced in this province. The fact that many young people are working for free, or less than minimum wage should shock all of us – especially those of us who are established in our careers.

      Now, perhaps your internship was offering $500 per month because you were paying $10 an hour for fifty hours of work. That wouldn’t be illegal of course! But then why would there be a flat rate put on a posted internship? Usually that’s because the internship is paying below minimum wage for the number of hours expected.

      I respect your response, but I don’t see anything in it that actually speaks to the issue that I raised. Low-paying internships – so low paying that they don’t meet minimum wage standards. You do respond to unpaid internships, but I didn’t raise that with regards to your company (I did raise it with regard to Fairmont Hotel because they had advertised unpaid work).

      If you can assure me that you pay your interns minimum wage or more for all hours worked, I would be happy to remove your company name from this article. (I am not referring here to the BCIT intern program, as I do understand these programs exist and can be valuable). I am not interested in harming the reputation of a company that is paying fair wages – however, the practice of established companies paying less than minimum wage, or not paying for overtime hours or whatever – drags down wages for every single one of us working people in the end. I think we do need to name the companies that engage in this, so that informed consumers can make decisions about what companies they will do business with.


      • Hi Megan,
        Thank you for your response. I see now that it was posted a year ago – one of our team members just made me aware of this, this morning – apparently my Google Alert for 6S isn’t working!

        I didn’t realize that you were talking about low-paid internships as well. So to speak to your point – absolutely – we actually pay our interns more than minimum wage. We pay $15/hour or more. As I mentioned we just wrapped up two internships – both being paid $15/hour. We currently have one UBC and one BCIT student working for us part time at $15/hour (separate from their intern or coop programs). The BCIT student we are now hiring full time starting April 29, and for considerably more than $15/hour.

        And I agree, regarding talking about companies that are taking advantage of students or not adhering to the the employment standards act. Lets talk about it and get the word out. There has been a lot of chat in the media the last few days regarding this, and I think its great that we are talking about it.


      • Hey John. I think it’s great that you responded and that you company commits to a fair wage for your interns. So thanks for responding and I will remove your company name from the article. It would be so great if we could have the tech/comms sector in Vancouver sigh onto a “fair treatment of interns” pact. I know that’s idealistic, but when I talk to young people out there trying to break into work, it just seems that every sector is taking advantage of them. It’s so different than when I entered the job market here 15 years ago.

        Cheers, Megan

      • The article is a year old, but obviously not much has changed. A very quick scan for internship, communications in Vancouver just turned up unpaid, or honorarium-based internships being offered by the following companies:

        Vision Investment Properties
        News 1130
        St Joseph Media (Magazine publishing) – two postings
        Cause Force (a major fundraising company)
        Hoot Suite
        YVR Air (offering $1000 per month for an unspecified number of hours)


  3. Hi Megan,
    Much appreciated, thank you.

    I think the unpaid internship landscape is about to change – with all this media coverage right now, companies are going to be changing their policies pretty quickly.

    I would keep an eye on it over the next week and we will probably see a change.


  4. Pingback: Breaking our backs….. (a rant about keeping down the working class) | Red Cedar

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