The article examines various reactions to the Ontario government’s decision that unpaid internships contravene the Employment Standards Act and looks at the ramifications of that decision.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Careers, business studies

Key Questions to Explore:

  • What are unpaid internships?
  • Who do they benefit?
  • What is the Employment Standards Act?

New Terminology:

Unpaid internships
Employment Standards Act

Materials Needed:

No special materials needed

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

The nature of employment is changing. Citing the recent economic crisis as a contributing factor, many companies engaged in cost-saving activities. Some downsized, some renegotiated contracts and some engaged in other activities, such as deferring raises and bonuses, in order to survive. The changing practices that were already starting to appear grew exponentially. Employment benefits packages changed. Defined contributions increasingly replaced defined benefits pension plans in order to offset costs. Contract positions with no benefits packages replaced full time employment.

Many were concerned about the impact on youth seeking employment, arguing that there needs to be a closer examination of the quality of work life being created today. This focused attention on the practice of unpaid internships. Although this practice has been in existence for a while, recently the Ontario government decided that it contravened the Employment Standards Act and served notice that it was launching an enforcement blitz, focused specifically on internships across a variety of sectors. This has resulted in some internships being cancelled and a debate over the value of this practice. Some argue that it is exploitation of those seeking employment while others say that unpaid internships provide valuable experience and skills for those involved, thus making them ultimately more employable.

This lesson will have the students examine unpaid internship and discuss whether or not they believe it to be a fair practice.

Action (lesson plan and task):

  • Ask the students to explain the term “barter”. (“Barter is a system of exchange by which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money” – O’Sullivan, Arthur; Steven M. Sheffrin (2003). Economics: Principles in Action)
  • Once they have established a working definition of the term ask them to give examples of bartering.
  • With this as background, ask the students to identify bartering situations in which one side provides labour in exchange for something aside from money.
  • Ask the students to explain how co-op placements are a form of bartering and have them explain what value the students get in return for their efforts at the job site.
  • • Explain to the students that many companies engage in this activity with graduates who are seeking employment in the workforce and that this practice is called “unpaid internships”.
  • Ask the students to identify reasons anyone who is seeking a paying job would consider accepting an unpaid internship.
  • Inform them that the Ontario government just recently decided that this practice contravened the Employment Standards Act and is closing down unpaid internships.
  • Provide them with a copy of the article and allow them time to read it.
  • Get their responses to it.
  • Divide the class into halves with those supporting the importance and continuance of unpaid internships on one side and those opposed to the practice on the other.
  • Allow the two groups time to prepare their argument in support of their position.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Hold a discussion in which the following statement is argued:

We believe that the practice of unpaid internships is (is not) in the best interests of those individuals seeking employment.

Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students will be able to explain the practice of unpaid internships.
  • Students will be able to explain why the Ontario government is paying increased attention to the practice.
  • Students will be able to explain the stated value of unpaid internships and also identify why many consider it an unfair practice.

Confirming Activity:

Have each student assume that they are either an employer or a recent graduate and write a short passage in which they explain whether, as the employer, they would offer unpaid internships or, as a graduate, consider accepting one. They should give reasons for their answers.