No more unpaid internships, Ontario warns well-known magazines, other sectors

Students wait in line at an internship job fair.
Students wait in line at an internship job fair. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Lynne Sladky

TORONTO – Unpaid internships at two of the country’s best-known magazines violate provincial labour laws, the Ontario government said Thursday, adding other sectors will soon face scrutiny as well.

In a move that has both angered and puzzled publishers, the Labour Ministry turned up the violations during inspections in December at the Walrus and Toronto Life Magazine, published by St. Joseph Media.

“As a result of these inspections, compliance orders were issued for violations of several standards,” the ministry said in a statement.

The interns, according to the ministry, have to be paid.

Rather than do so, the magazines have opted to scrap their internship programs, saying they simply can’t afford to take on interns as employees.

“They’ve always been unpaid, not because we’re mean-spirited and horrible (but) we’re a small charitable non-profit and we don’t have the money,” said Shelley Ambrose, co-publisher of the Walrus.

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As part of its educational mandate, Ambrose said, the Walrus had offered “amazing training” in the form of unpaid, six-month internships that led to good jobs. Five interns were terminated from the program as of April 1.

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Accessing the Toronto Life website page on internship applications produced an error Thursday.

Doug Knight, president of St. Joseph Media, said in an interview that he couldn’t understand why the province had opted for enforcement rather than engage in a conversation on the issue.

Like the Walrus, Knight said the 200-employee company would “absolutely love” to pay its interns but simply didn’t have the cash to do so.

“We thought the socially responsible thing to do was at least to provide a bridge for those young people who want to get into the magazine world,” Knight said.

Two interns at Toronto Life are out the door and others, planning to start in May, will no longer be offered positions.

Both publications questioned why the crackdown was happening now, given that their programs had been running publicly for years.

“This hasn’t been a secret,” Knight said.

Ambrose said there may yet be an appeal.

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With few exceptions, Ontario’s Employment Standards Act mandates pay for work for trainees. The government said the rules are aimed at ensuring young people are fairly treated.

Compliance inspections will continue beyond magazines, the ministry said.

“The Ministry of Labour will be launching an enforcement blitz this spring focused specifically on internships across a variety of sectors,” the statement said.

The ministry, which refused further comment, did not say which sectors might face scrutiny.

Most comments on Canadian Magazines blog website backed the province:

“I agree with the Labour Ministry cracking down on this,” said one poster, Heather Li.

“The rampant unpaid internships in journalism are creating an elitist divide in an industry that’s originally rooted in standing up for disenfranchised voices.”

However, one poster called the ministry crackdown bad news for interns and publishers alike.

“Students pay money to go to school but when on-the-job experience is handed out gratis, the bellyachers couldn’t resist,” the poster said.

The Toronto-based Grid website was still touting the internship program Thursday:

“Sure, it might not pay all that well – OK, it doesn’t pay at all! – but a Grid internship is a fantastic crash course in the magazine industry.”

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Grid publisher Laas Turnbull refused to comment.

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