National News

NDP to table intern protection bill

By Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The NDP is hoping to end the "Wild West" exploitation of unpaid interns with a new private member's bill that would cap the hours an intern can work for federally-regulated employers.

The bill, to be introduced today by New Democrat MP Lairin Liu, would grant interns the right to refuse dangerous work.

If enacted, it would also set conditions for the use of interns and offer them protection from sexual harassment.

Matt Ferguson, the brother of 22-year-old Andy Ferguson, who died in a head-on collision in 2011 after working excessive hours as an unpaid intern at a radio station in Alberta, is supporting the legislation.

Ferguson says he's convinced that his brother's death was the result of being forced to work for too many hours, regardless of whether he was unpaid.

And he says any law that prevents interns from being over-used by an employer is a huge step in the right direction.

"(My brother) was kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place," Ferguson said in an interview.

"I think there has to be something ... that outlines what (interns) are allowed to do and what they're not allowed to do just so they can't be taken advantage of."

Andy Ferguson's car struck a gravel truck head on in November 2011 after he had worked a morning shift, and then all night, at an Edmonton radio station.

The NDP bill is limited to federally-regulated workplaces and would not affect interns working in businesses or government institutions regulated by the provinces.

But it's better than having no protections at all, which is what currently exists, said Andrew Cash, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Liu.

"There's many employers that take this very seriously, there's very good programs set up through universities and colleges," said Cash.

"But it is a bit of a Wild West out there in that ... if you are working at an internship program, you're at the whims of an employer who is not paying you. And sometimes that has turned in some cases tragic."

The use of unpaid interns has been hotly debated both in Canada and the United States, where some young people work for free — often for months at a time — in the hope that their internship will either give them experience in the workplace or turn into a paid job.

Saskatchewan and Ontario recently cracked down on unpaid internships, while calls have escalated in Alberta for that province to do the same.

Ontario, for example, considers interns to be employees that must be paid unless an employer meets strict conditions, or if the intern is a college or university student.

In British Columbia, unpaid internships are illegal unless the internship provides "hands-on" training as part of a formal educational program, or for certain professions such as law or engineering.

Several American states have also enacted tougher measures against unpaid internships. And Britain recently banned the practice outright.

Employers in the U.S. are also being taken to task under current laws designed to limit abuse of interns. Just last week, a class action lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles by a former intern for the Los Angeles Clippers, alleging that the NBA franchise violated U.S. labour laws by not paying its interns.

It is rare for a private member's bill to become law.

But whether this bill gets through the House of Commons or not, the important thing is that people talking about the issue, said Ferguson.

"The more people talk about it, that's the only way that change will happen," he said.

"And maybe the government will feel more pressure to actually do something."

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