Two of Canada’s highest profile magazines have been told by the Ontario Ministry of Labour to immediately end their internship programs after complaints about unfair labour practices.

The Walrus and Toronto Life magazines will shut down their programs on Friday, after an inspector from the ministry informed the publications that their programs, which brought in aspiring journalists, designers, and others for temporary unpaid stints, contravened the Employment Standards Act.

And other magazines, many of which pay their interns a stipend, have been put on notice.

“We’ve been told that, as of April 1, every inspector in the Ministry of Labour will be targeting the magazine industry in the province of Ontario,” said Doug Knight, the president of St. Joseph Media, which publishes Toronto Life and a number of other magazines.

In response to a request for comment, the ministry issued a statement. “The Ministry of Labour will be launching an enforcement blitz this spring focused specifically on internships across a variety of sectors,” it said. It did not identify the industries, and a spokesman refused to elaborate.

Mr. Knight said about 20 to 30 internship positions would be eliminated at St. Joseph Media, including five at Toronto Life. The company employs about 200 paid staff at its properties, including Fashion, Wedding Bells, Canadian Family, Quill & Quire, and the Where city magazines.

Unpaid internships are permissible for co-op placements within programs run by degree-granting institutions. Magazines may also employ unpaid interns if they are providing training “similar to that which is given in a vocational school.”

Mr. Knight said that stipulation was problematic for the industry. “The majority of our interns are actually graduates of programs like English literature, political science – what have you – and they’ve decided they’re interested in the magazine industry. So they’re not coming from vocational schools, per se.”

He added: “We’re providing a program that’s a transition from school to work.”

Toronto Life has been running an internship program for about 20 years. It paid interns a stipend until the financial crisis in 2009. “I would love to pay our interns,” Mr. Knight said. “I would also love to give our regular staff annual cost of living increases. We can’t do it.”

The 10-year-old Walrus employs up to 11 unpaid interns in editorial, design, marketing, and development. It will continue to employ two interns who are associated with a vocational school.

Both publishers questioned the timing of the ministry’s actions. “We’ve been running an internship program at Toronto Life for something like 20 years,” said Mr. Knight. “It’s been wide open, there’s been no secret about it. It would be a shock and a surprise to suggest the Ontario government was not aware of the fact that these internships programs were running.”

Last March, the New Democrat MPP Taras Natyshak called on the Liberal government to regulate unpaid internships. “Why they’re choosing to enforce the Act after 10 years, and so swiftly, without any conversations, is interesting, and seemingly quite political,” said Shelley Ambrose, the Walrus co-publisher.

“The whole thing is completely wack-a-doodle: there’s been no consultation or consideration given to the quid pro quo at play,” said Laas Turnbull, the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Grid, which has an internship program. “It’ll be devastating to not only the industry, but to the thousands of would-be journalists trying to enter the work force each year.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Mar. 27 2014, 12:55 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 27 2014, 4:58 PM EDT