Close the loophole that excludes unpaid interns from safety rights

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – A March 2013 ministerial briefing note warns that interns who don’t get paid also don’t get health and safety rights.
Oct 21 2013.   Editorial

For student interns struggling to get job experience, it’s not unusual to be given the most menial of tasks — all to be performed for free. Indeed one young woman doing a high school internship program found herself cleaning toilets in a Toronto airport hotel, experience that was, apparently, related to her interest in the hotel management industry.

Providing free labour like this is, unfortunately, an increasingly common way to get coveted work experience. And while it’s fair to say that a little hard (and unpaid) work doesn’t necessarily hurt, it’s also true that the students providing this free labour should be covered by the same health and safety laws as paid employees. Trouble is, many are not.

As the Star’s Zoe McKnight reports, the Ministry of Labour was warned last March that a legislative loophole in the Occupational Health and Safety Act excludes some interns from province-wide health and safety rules. Indeed, a ministerial briefing note, uncovered through a freedom of information request, warned that the Act defines a “worker” as a person who is paid, thus marginalizing the free interns once again.

Last week, Ontario Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi quite rightly expressed concern about the loophole and said he is reviewing it. But, given that the warning letter was dated March 27, Naqvi has had ample time to finish his review. He must take the necessary steps to close the loophole. It’s that simple.

Without these health and safety rules, an employer isn’t even required to inform interns of their right to refuse dangerous work. That’s just wrong. It’s worrisome enough that interns are increasingly stuck with unpaid jobs, many of which are arranged by their universities and colleges. What’s unacceptable, however, is that interns are excluded from the safety rights that employees are guaranteed. (These rules don’t guarantee safety: in 2011, 73 Ontario workers died on the job.)

As Deena Ladd, of the Workers’ Action Centre says, when a loophole like this is discovered, the ministry should just “act on it.” She’s right. But as Ladd points out, it’s not just government action that’s required. Universities and colleges should also monitor student interns — at their place of work — to ensure the jobs are both related to education and the interns are being treated properly.

The next generation of workers shouldn’t be placed at risk just because they’re providing labour for free. Ontario must act now to protect them.

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