There is a great deal of commentary regarding HootSuite, a Vancouver social media company, and its practice to offer unpaid 40 hour per week internships in exchange for work experience. Apparently, the internships are not linked to the fulfillment of any academic program requirements, but are intended to provide opportunity for interns to gain work experience that will make them more employable and able to secure paid work.

HootSuite is not unique. I know a student who worked part-time for free as a summer social media intern to gain relevant experience in hopes that it would enable her to get a paying job. Living at home, this intern’s main expenses were her transit costs; however, not everyone may be as fortunate to have parents helping to “pay the rent” so to speak.

Should the practice of free internships be stopped or regulated? One may argue that those who are not part of an academic program may lack skills, and are actually “repaying the employer” in exchange for the training that is provided.  Unless the intern has some related or relevant skill base that they bring to the internship, the employer is “paying” for the loss of productivity, and training resource time to ensure that the intern develops a level of skill and knowledge to be able to contribute to the workplace. In other words, although the company is not paying the intern, there is a cost to the company in hosting the intern.

However, let’s consider this more closely.  I would suggest that a company would not put an untrained, unpaid intern into a role where there is a great deal of risk associated with error. I would also suggest that the learning time required to handle the intern opportunity in this instance is likely not protracted. In other words, one could conjecture that within a few short weeks (or even days!) the intern is “qualified” and “productive” and able to contribute on the job.

Therefore there is a strong basis to argue that there should be no unpaid internships as the interns do provide value to the company. In other words, lets not continue with this practice that is like having a version of “sweatshops.”

As an offset to the unpaid internships, many companies offer stipends. The student who I mentioned earlier in this post progressed to a paid internship the following summer. She received $500 per month and got excellent experience. But given her knowledge from her Post Graduate Certificate in Corporate Communications, and the expertise from her unpaid internship of the prior summer, she did feel somewhat undervalued and underpaid.

What she received was far less than any minimum wage payment. Unlike some “paid” internships, she got her stipend monthly versus some internships that only provide a stipend if you fulfill a minimum service requirement which is generally an entire summer.

Regardless of the amount of the stipend, this student’s parents, however, were thankful that she was experiencing “positive cash flow” – anything is better than “no flow.” Well done, daughter of mine! This did lead, post-internship, to a more significant and better paying job.

So, the progression here was clear, straight and sound. The unpaid intern role served as experience that she presented when seeking the paid intern role as part of her academic program; and the stipend paid intern role resulted in her getting an actual salary! So, like it or not, the unpaid internships can serve a purpose and provide that important introduction to the workplace.

It would be wonderful and fair, however, if companies did acknowledge the contributions of their interns with a financial reward. The offset for the contributions made by the intern would more than pay for any stipend they receive. Also, lets look at this way; think of how that remuneration would help the intern to contribute to the economy via discretionary spending? “A Tim’s double-double, anyone?”

What do you think? Should companies be required to pay for interns? Is a monthly stipend enough or should a minimum wage be mandated in all instances?  Do you think companies will stop having interns if they are required to pay?

To read more about HootSuite and their unpaid intern problem read Howl over to HootSuite’s unpaid internship program.


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  • ppg

    Of course some companies would stopp offering internships if they had to pay for them since they are bieng used as free labour. However other companies would be able to hire more staff since they are no longer competing against a cheap labour competitor.
    If there really is a long time and a lot of training for the intern to become productive then a better model is an apprenticeship. Then there will be regulation, standards and an income as the intern goes through the process. If there isn’t a lot of training required then employment standards and mimimum wage laws should apply.

  • malcolma

    Any company that benefits financially from the work that their staff performs should pay them, whether an intern or any other personnel. Perhaps the tradeoff of gaining work experience is worth it to forgo pay at least for the training period. But, once the intern passes from the learning stage into productivity, then they should be receiving remuneration in recogntion of their contribution to the company. Otherwise, if it’s not slave labour, then it sure looks like it.

  • There is widespread abuse of internships, especially for young foreign workers in Canada under work/study programs. Do you need to serve an internship as a dishwasher?

    More importantly, there is no exemption from the BC Employment Standards Act requirements if the person is performing work at the direction and control of someone else. The problem is that the BC government does nothing to enforce the Act unless a complaint is brought forward.

  • Swilsonz

    It amazing how calling internships a “common practice” has hidden the ethical issue. Not being paid for work being done. Internships are unethical. It cold be argued that if both parties agree, there is no ethical issue. However, the potential for abuse is so vast that it would be better to legislate against it in all forms. Of course, companies would be harmed. Just like plantations were harmed by the laws against slavery – which at one time was considered as legitimate as Internship is today.

  • Mike

    The argument that employers incur an indirect “cost” to train interns is irrelevant. BC law requires that all on the job training us paid. Period.

  • weary of corporate unethics

    This unethical labor practice should be illegal. These employers should be required to pay minimum wage for work performed or face severe penalties.

  • The argument that not paying staff for work is common is inane and an insult to the thousands of companies who fairly treat interns and coop students in Canada every year. Hootsuite has nearly 200 employees, a full time HR staff and in house council and they suggest that nobody knew that you had to pay people who worked 40 hours a week for months on end?
    Hootsuite claims to be worth a billion dollars yet they can’t afford to pay their own employees?