I own a small events and promotions business. Every so often I get emails from students asking if they could volunteer to learn about the business. I’ve never hired a student because they’re inexperienced but I’m considering hiring one as an intern this summer. I don’t have the budget for a full time employee but I would be willing to pay them a modest stipend. I’ve heard both paid and unpaid internships are illegal in Ontario. Is this true?
In Ontario, the rules around internships are strict and in recent years some employers have been required to change their internship programs as a result. If someone is receiving on the job training from a business they are considered to be an employee of the business under Ontario law. As an employee they are entitled to a minimum wage under the Employment Standards Act so paying them a stipend that does not meet the minimum wage is against the law.
There are two exceptions to this general rule which recognize the educational value of internships. The first is internship programs approved by a college or university which are permitted.
The second exception is internships that meet criteria set by the Ministry of Labour. These requirements include that the intern is receiving valuable training, is not taking someone else’s job, and has not been promised a job after their training. The most important feature is the educational component: the primary purpose of internships is to teach valuable skills, not to provide cheap labour to businesses.
The safest way to ensure compliance with the law is to have an internship approved as part of a college or university program. Alternatively, you should design the internship ahead of time to focus it around training and skills development.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This publication is the 33rd installment of our firm’s Legal Matters series, which answers a reader’s question every week. If you have a general legal question that you would like to have addressed please send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org