Death knell sounding for unpaid internships? NDP MP says tide may be turning

Bell Mobility has at least temporarily scrapped a controversial program that recruits hundreds of interns each year to work without pay at the company, one of Canada’s largest and most profitable telecommunications firms.

OTTAWA — Bell Mobility has at least temporarily scrapped a controversial program that recruits hundreds of interns each year to work without pay at the company, one of Canada’s largest and most profitable telecommunications firms.

After callers were told earlier this week that Bell was not accepting applications, the phone number associated with the program now goes unanswered. Its recruitment and application web page is also down.

“The Professional Management Program was completed last April and is no longer available,” company spokesman Albert Lee said in an email. He wouldn’t say whether the program had been permanently terminated.

A year ago, a former intern sought back wages from Bell Mobility after working for five weeks under the program. Jainna Patel claimed the internship had no educational value and that she was doing the same work as a paid employee.

Patel’s complaint was rejected by a federal labour inspector, but she’s appealing the decision with the help of a Toronto labour lawyer.

The apparent demise of the program could mean Bell has finally seen the light, said Tim Gleason of Dewart Gleason LLP, the firm representing Patel.

“Perhaps they are concerned about ongoing liability?” he said. “We hope that this is a signal that Bell has joined the growing consensus that people need to be paid for their work.”

Canadian companies large and small are nervously eyeing their unpaid internship programs due to increasing scrutiny about the practice, says an NDP politician who’s tabled a private member’s bill that would protect those who work for free.

“Many companies are taking a serious look these days at their internship programs in part due to the spotlight that’s been put on the issue of unpaid work, especially as it affects young people,” Toronto MP Andrew Cash said in an interview Friday.

“Even small businesses out there that have internship programs — we’re talking about companies with wafer-thin profits — they’re saying we don’t know what the rules are, but whatever they are, we want to comply. But the fact of the matter is, there aren’t any federal rules at all.”

The issue has been under a national spotlight since Andrew Ferguson, a student at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, died in 2011 while driving home from an unpaid internship. He had worked a 16-hour day at a radio station where he was doing his internship.

Earlier this year, the Ontario government cracked down on the practice at a host of Toronto-based magazines, including Flare, owned by Rogers Media, and the Walrus.

Those publications have since ceased to employ unpaid interns.

Many interns are beginning to complain publicly about their internships, particularly those who have worked with profitable corporations.

Lewis Krashinsky, 20, worked for free for Sportsnet for three months last summer, a Rogers media outlet.

“I am thrilled that I got the experience and was given the opportunity and it was valuable, but looking back, why wasn’t I paid?” he said in an interview.

“I was doing the work of a full-time employee. Why couldn’t there have been fair compensation as well as experience? They’re not incompatible concepts.”

He added that despite the repeated praise he received for his on-the-job performance, he was unable to secure a reference letter from his employers after the internship ended simply because no one would answer his emails.

Sportsnet spokeswoman Jennifer Neziol said the company was reaching out to Krashinsky to ensure he gets his letter of reference. She praised him as an “exceptional” employee during his internship.

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