Unpaid internships are steadily replacing entry-level jobs, and graduating students are feeling the extra financial burden of working for free just as their student loan payments are becoming due. The fact that the majority of internships offer little to no pay is just part of the problem.

Originally designed to give graduates hands-on vocational experience they wouldn’t have received in school, internships have quickly turned into an illegal form of employment in which interns are doing menial tasks like running errands and making coffee—tasks most interns didn’t even encounter in their high school co-op placements.

The Ontario Employment Standards Act lays out a set of requirements that need to be met in order for an internship to qualify as legal, and most internships fall short from making even one of the requirements. Yet the number of unpaid internships continues to increase. So, what gives? How come so many companies are getting away with this illegal form of employment?

The recently formed Canadian Intern Association seeks to address these questions. Founded in May of this year, the Canadian Intern Association is mostly comprised of college and university graduates. Many of the members have completed unpaid internships and have firsthand experience of the problems involved. As well, there are several members who are now working as employment lawyers or who have a background in law. Basically, if graduates want anyone to have their back, these people have got it covered.

To be clear, the Canadian Intern Association is not against internships, or even unpaid internships. They recognize that some internships offer benefits such as networking opportunities, vocational experience, school credit, being able to take the time to learn as opposed to operating on a deadline, and a feel for what it is like to be working in a field rather than studying one.

Members are tackling the objectives of raising awareness and educating both employers and employees about what the legal requirements are.

One of their projects in progress is a guidebook that presents the employment laws and how to keep in compliance with them. The Canadian Intern Association also advocates for interns by campaigning for regulations and collecting research and data that can help enforce legal requirements and hopefully create stricter laws.

Advocation has been one of the biggest issues surrounding the exploitation of unpaid interns. Clearly, the government has failed on this level, as the ESA places the burden on the intern and offers no legal help in filing claims.

As well, while legislation exists at provincial levels, there is none at a federal level. This means that an intern working for a federally regulated company, like a telecom company, would not be protected by any laws and a company could exploit their interns with no legal repercussions.

There has been a two-fold challenge for people working in illegal internships in that there is a lack of awareness about employment laws and that there is a stigma attached to filing a claim.

Kyle Iannuzzi, a Canadian Intern Association member and a former intern who won a claim against his employer, explains that many interns simply do not know they are being exploited.

The stigma that surrounds making a claim is more complicated. For one, you are under the constant stress of putting your livelihood at risk – no one wants to get blacklisted from their field or earn the reputation of a whistle blower. As well, unless you are diligent about collecting evidence and are familiar with the law, it’s your word against a company’s. There’s also the cost of legal fees; while filing a claim is free, legal advice most often is not.

Iannuzzi played his cards right and won his case, but if he hadn’t had the foresight to forward his work emails to his personal emails, he would have lost a lot of evidence when his employer locked him out of his work email account the second he left the company.

In addition to most internships being completely illegal, there is a greater economic impact that is at stake. The talent and potential that comes with a recent pool of graduates is wasted when those graduates are forced to spend their time on menial tasks instead of creative projects. As well, interns have less money to spend and therefore less money that gets put back into the economy. Instead, the record profits many businesses are making get placed into the few people at the top, and none of that has been trickling down to decrease student debt.

Grassroots action has been successful in achieving many things, and hopefully the Canadian Intern Association will succeed in tackling some of the problems surrounding the legalities of internships.

Some of the solutions they’ve proposed include statutory reform, the creation of a Youth Labour Market Secretariat within the Ministry of Labour, addressing employment standards legislation at a federal level, and creating incentives for companies to hire employees rather than exploiting unpaid interns.

However, graduates need to also take a stand and not let themselves be exploited. Yes, companies have created an unfair situation that pits the unemployed against big businesses, but collectivism does work so long as people are willing to take responsibility.

The Canadian Intern Association is a great start, but graduates need to have their back in the same way the Canadian Intern Association has theirs.

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When Jasmine was a child, she could almost always been found with a notebook and pen in hand, writing away. As an adult, she has written for a variety of magazines and websites, including the art magazine Juxtapoz. She was the 2010 winner of a blogging contest put on by the publishing house JournalStone. JournalStone also published two of her short fiction stories in their horror anthologies in 2010 and 2011. When she's not writing, Jasmine spends a good chunk of her time completing her history degree and working as a professional dance performer and instructor.