National News

Feds should track unpaid internships, MPs say

By Benjamin Shingler, The Canadian Press

A new report by the Commons finance committee says the federal government should take steps to ensure unpaid internships are in line with the country's labour laws.

The report, which looked at the challenges of youth employment, recommends Ottawa work with provinces and territories to protect unpaid interns under the relevant labour codes.

It also suggests the federal government examine unpaid internships to understand their impact on the job market.

Estimates suggest as many 300,000 young Canadians work as unpaid interns, but there is little hard data available because employers aren't required to report the numbers to federal authorities.

In all, the Conservative-dominated committee put forward 23 recommendations to help address youth unemployment, which has climbed in recent years.

A section prepared by the NDP argued for additional, tougher measures, including changes to the federal labour code to protect interns' working conditions.

The report, released Friday, comes after months of heated debate in Canada over the merits of unpaid internships.

Many young people take part in unpaid internships in hopes of earning workplace experience or a full-time job.

Critics argue the practice amounts to a form of exploitation and limits participation to those who can afford to work for free.

The committee heard testimony from several groups calling for a crackdown during its hearings in March and April.

The Association of Canadian Community Colleges, for instance, called for "national employment standards" protecting any unpaid interns who aren't completing the work as part of a post-secondary program.

The head of the University of Toronto Students' Union, meanwhile, argued students struggling with a heavy debt-load are often most affected.

"Those who cannot afford to work for free lose out on networking opportunities, can suffer from skills degradation, and often can have their skills fall behind innovation, making it more difficult to enter their field, if given the opportunity," Yolen Bollo-Kamara told the committee.

The unemployment rate for youth aged 15 to 19 climbed from 15.7 to 20.1 per cent between the first half of 2008 and the first half of 2013, according to the report.

The unemployment rate for youth aged 20 to 24 climbed from 9.4 to 11.1 per cent during the same period.

Other suggestions in the report included offering tax credits for businesses that hire Canadians aged 18 to 30, and examining the approach of countries like Germany, which uses partnerships between schools, employers and unions to better meet the demands of the labour market.

It's unclear what the Harper government will do with the recommendations.

A spokesman for Labour Minister Kellie Leitch did not immediately return a request to comment on Saturday.

On Monday, Andrew McGrath said the government is considering an NDP bill aimed at ending the exploitation of unpaid interns in Canada, but wouldn’t say whether it plans to support the move or bring in legislation of its own.

In the meantime, provinces are taking their own steps to crack down on unpaid internships.

Saskatchewan and Ontario recently introduced stricter measures, while Alberta is under pressure to do the same. Unpaid internships in British Columbia are illegal unless the internship provides "hands-on'' training as part of a formal educational program or specific professional training.

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