Unpaid Internships: Legal & Ethical Considerations When Supporting Clients


By Eilidh Sligo.

Unpaid internships have traditionally been seen as a way for new graduates to gain experience in their chosen industry. Growing up, I was aware of aspiring professionals who used their family network to secure unpaid opportunities in prestigious organizations in industries ranging from law, to consulting and accounting. However, times have changed, and new legislation requires all workers to be paid minimum wage.

Legal Issues

Within Canada, the employment law of each province will determine whether an organization can legally hire your client to work in an unpaid internship position. For example, in British Columbia an unpaid internship (unless for a not-for-profit organization) is only legal if it is an embedded component of an educational program. If it is not, the organization is required to pay the minimum wage.

Career Practitioners must be aware of employment law within their province to ensure that they are providing their clients with the best advice. Don’t worry – you are not expected to be a legal expert! Just being able to offer guidance and point your client towards the published legislation is useful.

As professionals within the career management industry, it is also our job to educate employers who are not aware of the legislation surrounding unpaid internships. Many small, independent enterprises without dedicated legal and HR teams may not realize that the law has changed since they were students. It is always beneficial, if brought up during a discussion, to gently let an employer know that it is no longer an accepted practice.

Ethical Considerations

Let’s face it, who can afford to work for free? The answer is that very few of us can, especially young people living in expensive cities such as Vancouver and Toronto! Unpaid internships favour the wealthy sections of society, and eliminate employment opportunities from individuals who need an income to survive.

The legislation will protect your clients from unscrupulous employers who may target more vulnerable members of society – for example, new immigrants looking to secure valuable Canadian work experience, or new graduates who have been told that they need more than their education to get a job.

Everyone deserves to be paid for the work that they are doing, and your clients should know that the only unpaid work that they should be offered is that from not-for-profit organizations (this is legal).


Working in a university which offers programs in the creative industries, I have noticed that unpaid project work is still seen by many as a way for students to build up their portfolio or reel. As career professionals, we are not here to police industries, but should always take the opportunity to educate employers and empower job seekers.

Similarly, the post-secondary industry in Canada attracts a lot of international students and internationally trained professionals. I have had conversations with some of these individuals who have said “I would be happy to work for free to get some experience.” If you have clients who feel that their skills don’t merit a wage, it is important for you to work with them to increase their self-confidence and make them aware of the unique strengths that they can bring to a workplace.

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