Interns uninformed of rights, says legal advocate

WATCH ABOVE: A legal advocate says many interns are unaware of their rights and post-secondary institutions don’t do enough to prepare students for their internships. Sean O’Shea reports.

Canadian students are usually unaware of their rights and their employer’s legal responsibilities before taking on internships, says the president of an intern rights organization.

“I think the Canadian universities and colleges have been completely inadequate when it comes to educating interns on what their rights are,” said Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association.

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“Interns are in a very precarious position,” according to Seaborn, who is also an articling student at a Toronto law firm. “Employers should be encouraging interns to be aware of what their rights are.”

For example, in many cases, interns are not covered by workplace health and safety legislation, says Seaborn. At the same time, interns — whether paid or unpaid — are entitled to human rights protection, including the right to be free from physical and sexual harassment on the job.

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Bill 18 in Ontario is a proposed law that would change the definition of employee to include student interns. If adopted, provincially-regulated interns would be entitled to at least the minimum wage during practicum assignments, Seaborn says.

In fields like journalism, internships ranging from as little as two weeks to as much as four months are a requirement to obtain a diploma or degree.

At Ryerson University in Toronto, a group of students in the master’s degree program is learning about what to expect when they enter a newsroom environment.

“We had a brief discussion about that, about how long you can be an unpaid intern,” saidstudent Laura Hensley.

But money isn’t the only area of concern when it comes to internships.

“Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean you’re not a human being. Everyone deserves those basic human rights. I shouldn’t be harassed because I’m an intern,” said Kira Wakeam.

But students and those advocating for their rights acknowledge many will put up with abuse in order to get ahead, fearful of filing complaints and taking their employer to task.

“As an intern you’re there to get the experience so there’s already a willingness to do anything,” said Yasmine Mathurin.

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Fatima Syed said she and her fellow students have “dreams and aspirations” organizations should not take advantage of.

“We may be at the bottom of the food chain but we have rights,” she said.

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