Updated: Ontario labour ministry cracks down on unpaid internships at Toronto Life, The Walrus

By Tamara Baluja

The Ontario labour ministry has cracked down on unpaid internships at Toronto Life and The Walrus, saying they are in contravention of the Employment Standards Act.

By Tamara Baluja

The Ontario labour ministry has cracked down on unpaid internships at Toronto Life and The Walrus, saying they are in contravention of the Employment Standards Act.

As a result, the two publications have cancelled their internship programs—except for those students who are doing their unpaid work for school credit—effective Monday and five interns at the each of the magazines will be let go.Since then, Canadian Geographic and Rogers Publishing have also ended their unpaid internship programs.

D. B. Scott, who runs Canadianmags.blogspot.ca, broke the story late Wednesday reporting “the ministry inspector also advised that, though he was starting with Toronto Life, the policy will be enforced later with other St. Joseph magazines and, indeed eventually, all magazines in Ontario.” 

While the Canadian Intern Association and the Canadian Writers Group praised the ministry’s actions, the publishers of Toronto Life and The Walrus said the Liberal government’s actions were shortsighted and seemed like a political maneuver to get NDP support.

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“They’ve decided to target magazines for some bizarre reason,” said St. Joseph Media CEO Douglas Knight in an interview with J-Source. “Everyone knows that we can’t afford it and the magazine industry is just trying to stay alive.”

Shelley Ambrose, publisher of The Walrus, told J-Source the decision to enforce the legislation was “incredibly shortsighted” and The Walrus will appeal the decision with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

“We help them [the interns] prepare for jobs … does the Ontario government have a training program ready for these young workers? Do they have funding to provide them pay? Where will get the training they need for jobs?”

Bruce Skeaff, media relations co-ordinator for the ministry of labour, said the inspection is ongoing and the government committed $3 million last year to hire additional inspectors and conduct workplace inspections. “This means that, pending any appeal, the workers involved have to be paid,” he said in an emailed statement to J-Source. “The Ministry of Labour will be launching an enforcement blitz this spring focused specifically on internships across a variety of sectors.”

Knight said Toronto Life paid its interns an honorarium until the economic crisis of 2009. He said he would “love to pay our interns, but we can’t even afford to give our regular staff annual cost-of-living increases.”

St. Joseph Media has also cancelled its unpaid internship programs at its other publications. At any given time, it typically has 20 to 30 interns, doing work ranging from filing web copy to fact-checking.

Toronto Life has been running its internship program for more than two decades while The Walrus has run its program since its creation 10 years ago. “This isn’t anything new and you can’t tell me that the government didn’t know about it before,” Knight said.

The issue of unpaid media internships has been picking up steam since last year. NDP labour critic MPP Taras Natyshak said last March that unpaid internships will continue to be at risk of abuse unless they’re regulated by the ministry. And at the federal level, NDP MP Andrew Cash also tabled a private member’s bill calling on the government to establish a legal framework for the labour laws that govern precarious employment.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, said “it’s about time” the Ontario government enforced the act. “It’s good to see them be proactive about this.”

Derek Finkle, co-founder of the Canadian Writers Group that advocates for freelancers, said unpaid work devalues that work of journalists.

“If you’re running a business and tell me you can’t hire people to do that work, then you should shut down your business,” he said. “Many of the interns aren’t completely untrained … some of them have great schooling, have already been published, so you create this sense that their experience isn’t worth paying for.”

Finkle said he was hired as Toronto Life’s first unpaid intern in 1993. The internship led to a cover story for the magazine, but he was never paid for it. “You’re telling me that if I’m good enough a writer to make it the cover of that magazine, that somehow I’m not good enough to be paid,” he said. “Work is work. Pay for it.”

Yet journalists appear to be split on the issue of unpaid internships.

James Cowan, deputy editor at Canadian Business (which pays its interns), said the rationales behind unpaid internships don’t make sense to him.

“There is cost to the employers as well, one that many companies are too short-sighted to see,” he said in a column. “Constantly recruiting, training and monitoring new workers is a drain on both time and money. If young people need real world experience, then let them gain it through co-op programs, where there is tight co-ordination between school and employer. Or just pay them for their work.”

Angele Cano is currently an unpaid intern at the Canadian Geographic in Ottawa. She has worked as a journalist for publications in Nova Scotia and Northwest Territories as well as freelanced for the CBC. Now in her 30s, she’s doing a three-month unpaid stint at the magazine “after a month of searching for jobs and getting nothing.”

“I did have savings and as much as it sucked, I moved back in my parents’ home for this internship,” she said. “Otherwise, I’m not sure how I could do an unpaid internship.”

While she would like to be paid, she said the experience at Canadian Geographic has been invaluable. “I’ve really learned a lot, and they take a lot of time to give you feedback, so yeah, it’s been worth it.”

She said it was unfair that only students who need an internship for course credit would be able to access those opportunities. “I would hope that someone like me, coming from the workforce and wanting the experience, wouldn't have to miss out because of that rule,” she said. 

Update: On Monday, Cano told J-Source that the internship program at the Canadian Geographic was cancelled because the magazine wanted to be in compliance with the ministry of labour’s rules. Two interns, including Cano, have been told their internships have been cancelled as a result.

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