How to Advocate for Yourself as an Intern

And What You Should Know About Where Interns Fit in Quebec’s Labour Code

Graphic Cory Shallow

Many unpaid internships remain legal and interns still can’t access to the same protections afforded to workers under Quebec’s Labour Code.

With a lack of legislation at our disposal, the onus often falls on us to advocate for a little bit of dignity in the workplace.

Even if you do have the support of a department who will advocate to ensure you get the most out of your internships, it’s still important to know your options if you end up in a bad situation, and that you have the tools to prevent things from going south in the first place.

But before we get down to the nitty gritty, it’s important to know the difference between a legal and illegal internship. While your employer may call you an intern, that doesn’t necessarily mean you fit the legal definition of one.

In Quebec, an internship is considered legal as long as it’s part of a university or CEGEP course, a vocational program, or for a not-for-profit with “social or community purposes.” In those instances, there’s no grounds for you to attempt to claim back wages.

But if your internship falls outside these confines, wage claims on the grounds of “employee misclassification” can be attempted through Quebec’s labour watchdog, the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail.

To succeed, you’ll need to bring forward evidence that shows you were carrying out tasks that ought to have been carried out by an employee instead, and can only file a claim if you finished the work less than a year ago.

You can also make the same claim if you agreed to the work under the title of “volunteer.”

Interns, however, rarely attempt to claim back wages, and since there’s little precedent for them to do so, many don’t know that’s even an option. William Webb from the Canadian Intern Association said that while he’s heard of a handful of interns successfully claiming back wages in other provinces, he’s yet to hear of that ever happening in Quebec.

“There might be the laws on the books, but because interns are so hesitant to go through that process, it might just be that,” he explained.

“It can follow you around when you’re looking for jobs in the future, and if word spreads, could lead to to negative rumours being spread about you,” he said about filing for unpaid wages. “You might be informally blacklisted.”

When asked if there’s any precedent to interns successfully claiming back wages under employee misclassification in Quebec, the CNESST wrote that they don’t keep any statistics on complaints made by interns, and so couldn’t answer the question.
But they highlighted that whether your internship is legal or not, you can still contact them if you experienced psychological or sexual harassment, or if your employer took part in “prohibited practices” against you, which includes discrimination or unfair dismissals and reprimands.

Webb said the one-year limitation on making these sorts of claims likely dissuades interns from taking action.

If they’re still carrying out the internship, they’ll want to avoid reprisals at all costs, and even if they’ve left, they could still be relying on that employer to give them a reference.

And in hyper-competitive fields, those concerns are valid. “If you give an employer a reason not to hire you, it’s no skin off their back, because they have 20 other people in line to choose from,” Webb continued.

That’s why he recommends collective action over individual protest.

In 2014, two Bell Canada interns successfully sued the company over unpaid wages, leading to the closure of their unpaid internship program. But intern strikes present a new tactic at students’ disposal.

“Maybe Quebec can be a leader moving forward, in changing its laws,” he said. “Students there are doing some really great stuff in terms of pushing the envelope in ways that student unions in other parts of the country just aren’t.”

But what are your options if those legal internships are also leaving you feeling fucked over?

Nasr Ahmed from the Canadian CWA media union said the best way to avoid abuse and those “never-ending internships” is to set up a contract between you and your employer before it begins. The Labour Code may fail to afford you these rights, but that doesn’t mean you have zero say in what you’re signing up for.

“The only reason this framework is legal in the first place is that you are not supposed to be doing another person’s job, you’re not supposed to be taking work away from somebody,” he said. “You’re essentially supposed to be on the job training, this is supposed to be training that’s similar to training you received at your vocational school or university.”

By setting up a contract with firm expectations between you and your employer, you can ensure that you’re actually carrying out an internship, rather than doing the same work an employee would do with only course-credit in exchange. You may already be presented with one, and in that instance you’re still free to negotiate the terms therein.

We talk about work in dollars and cents, but do we talk about work in terms of dignity? We don’t and that’s the unfortunate thing. Why should a worker be expected to hang up their dignity and leave it at the door for eight hours a day just to earn some money?”

Nasr Ahmed

At the very least, you need to make sure you have a contract that stipulates the length of the internship and how many hours you’ll be working throughout that time—though Ahmed said he’s noticed students tend to take whatever is offered to them without attempting to negotiate for something better.

“It’s that feeling of powerlessness that just forces people to take the first offer, take whatever is given to them, and not make a fuss about it,” he said. “It should not be this relationship where one side speaks and the other side accepts it.”

Beyond knowing how long you’ll stay and how many hours you’ll work, your contract can also hash out:

  • Who your mentor will be, and how often you’ll meet with them
  • What tasks you’ll carry out and the skills you can expect to learn while there
  • What departments you’ll be working in
  • Reimbursements for travel and meals
  • Who owns the publishing rights to your work (if you’re a media worker, for example)
  • Whether you’ll get a meeting or job interview to close the internship and discuss how it went.

Webb recommends that you vet your contract at a legal clinic, and many universities, including Concordia, do run free legal clinics through their student unions.

Getting these agreements on paper shows you’re serious about not seeing your boundaries crossed, and with an assertive attitude, it’s less likely you’ll get pigeonholed into doing tasks you never signed up for in the first place.

In the instance you start getting asked to complete tasks outside of the confines of your contract, you’ll have something to reference when you have to say no. If for some reason your employer balks at the idea of signing a contract, you can push to get the agreement in writing via email, which allows you to have something you can point to in a similar manner.

“You’re not going to get anything if you don’t start with a negotiation, if you don’t actually ask for something and demand something,” Ahmed stressed.

Without a contract, you’ll have less grounds to turn down your employers’ demands, but Ahmed also recommends keeping track of the internship posting so you can call out your employer if you find yourself being asked to do things that were never mentioned in the original job post.

He says it’s also important to keep a paper-trail on your employer: a copy of the internship posting, a record of all correspondence between you and them, your contracts, licensing and copyright agreements, schedules of your shifts, “everything.”

You can use this in a legal defense if things really do go south, if you learn your unpaid internship is illegal and want to build a case to claim back wages, or if you want to file some sort of grievance internally or through the CNESST. “You can’t have a he said, she said situation—you need to have hard facts, evidence, a paper trail.”

“These are the steps we can take to protect ourselves, and reclaim a little bit of dignity in the workplace,” Ahmed explained. “We talk about work in dollars and cents, but do we talk about work in terms of dignity? We don’t and that’s the unfortunate thing. Why should a worker be expected to hang up their dignity and leave it at the door for eight hours a day just to earn some money?”

“It’s a notion that’s completely fallen to the wayside that we should expect any semblance of dignity in the workplace.”