Proposed measures to protect unpaid interns fall woefully short: NDP

Measures announced in last month’s budget to protect unpaid interns have turned out to be far less potent than advertised, New Democrats charge.

OTTAWA — Measures announced in last month’s budget to protect unpaid interns have turned out to be far less potent than advertised, New Democrats charge.

Details of the measures were spelled out in an omnibus budget implementation bill tabled last Friday and NDP MP Andrew Cash said he was disappointed to find the Harper government is doing nothing to protect interns from sexual harassment, being forced to work unlimited hours or being otherwise exploited as unpaid labour.

He called the omissions “significant” and “quite frankly, inexplicable.”

Cash co-sponsored a private member’s bill that would have amended the Canada Labour Code to apply to unpaid interns, giving them the same protections as other workers in federally regulated industries, such as television, telecommunications and financial institutions.

Although it had initially pooh-poohed the need for extra protection, the federal government announced in the budget that it would indeed amend the code “to ensure that interns under federal jurisdiction, regardless of pay, receive occupational health and safety protections and are subject to basic safety standards, and to clarify the circumstances under which unpaid internships can be offered.”

Cash took that to mean that the government had “cut and pasted” his bill, which was subsequently defeated, into the budget. But then he read the fine print in the budget implementation bill.

The government is proposing to amend the labour code to include occupational health and safety protection for unpaid interns, such as the right to refuse to do unsafe work. It also proposes to require employers to keep records of the number of hours worked by interns and to limit full-time internships to four months in duration, although Cash said nothing prevents them from being renewed.

While that’s “a step forward,” Cash said the government is doing nothing to ensure provisions on workplace standards apply to interns — the provisions that provide protection from harassment, long hours with no days off and other exploitation.

Nor, he discovered, is the government requiring unpaid internships to be managed by educational institutions. That’s a measure he had included in his private member’s bill and which he deems critical to ensuring that internships provide practical experience to young people and don’t simply give companies an opportunity to replace full-time entry level jobs with free labour.

“They fell woefully short on the workplace standards and I want to highlight the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace because that is part of workplace standards that is not in this bill and I find that just inexplicable,” Cash said in an interview.

“The devil’s always in the detail with these things with the government and, as we’ve seen in many other instances, they like to do the ribbon cutting, they like to do the announcements and, as we’ve seen … their record on following through isn’t great.”

Labour Minister Kellie Leitch said in an email statement that Cash’s bill “lacked clarity on several key elements, such as the definition of training.”

She said the government “consulted widely” on its proposed amendments to the Canada Labour Code and added that the changes have been supported by stakeholders such as the Canadian Intern Association.

“Our government is standing up for young workers and introducing protections for unpaid interns through the Budget Implementation Act,” Leitch said. “We encourage all parties in the House to support the BIA and to stand up for young workers.”

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