Canadian magazines are bracing for a regulatory crackdown across the industry after two of the country’s highest-profile publications suspended their unpaid internship programs amid accusations of unfair labour practices.
The Walrus and Toronto Life magazines will stop employing unpaid interns on Friday, after the Ontario Ministry of Labour informed them the programs, which brought in aspiring journalists, designers and others for temporary unpaid stints, contravened the Employment Standards Act.
Other magazines, some of which pay their interns a stipend, are anticipating similar scrutiny.
“We’ve been told that, as of April 1, every inspector in the Ministry of Labour will be targeting the magazine industry in the province of Ontario,” said Doug Knight, the president of Toronto Life publisher St. Joseph Media.
A ministry spokesman refused to comment, but issued a statement that read: “The Ministry of Labour will be launching an enforcement blitz this spring focused specifically on internships across a variety of sectors.” The statement added that the Ontario government had “invested an additional $3-million last year,” increasing its number of inspectors and conducting more inspections in the workplace.
Mr. Knight said a total of between 20 and 30 internship positions would be eliminated at St. Joseph Media. The company employs about 200 paid staff at its properties, including Fashion, Wedding Bells, Canadian Family, Quill & Quire, and the Where city magazines.
The 10-year-old Walrus employs up to 11 unpaid interns in editorial, design, marketing and development. It will continue to employ two interns who are associated with a vocational program.
The law permits unpaid internships for students pursuing degrees, as well as in other cases in which six strict criteria are met. Among the criteria: The magazine must not derive a significant “benefit from the activity of the intern,” and it must provide training “similar to that which is given in a vocational school.”
Mr. Knight said that stipulation was problematic for the industry. “The majority of our interns are actually graduates of programs like English literature, political science – what have you – and they’ve decided they’re interested in the magazine industry. So they’re not coming from vocational schools, per se.”
He added: “We’re providing a program that’s a transition from school to work.”
In the United States, unpaid internships have long been a popular route for journalists to break into the industry. But last year Condé Nast announced it would end the practice after former interns at The New Yorker and W sued the magazine giant.
Toronto Life previously paid interns a stipend, but stopped doing so during the 2009 financial crisis. “I would love to pay our interns,” Mr. Knight said. “I would also love to give our regular staff annual cost-of-living increases. We can’t do it.”
Labour activists cheered the government action. “Magazines are one of the worst industries for exploiting unpaid interns,” said Ella Henry, a spokesperson with the group Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams, which was created last fall as part of a wider push against the practice. “What’s happened in recent years is that paid entry-level jobs have been replaced by unpaid internships. … There’s no reason you can’t get good experience and a foot in the door at an internship that pays minimum wage.”
Politicians at both the provincial and federal levels have been raising the heat on internship programs. Last March, Ontario New Democratic MPP Taras Natyshak called on the Liberal government to regulate unpaid internships. Last November, NDP MP Andrew Cash introduced the National Urban Worker Strategy, a private member’s bill he said would help protect interns.
The Walrus co-publisher Shelley Ambrose charged that there was an agenda behind the government’s move. “Why they’re choosing to enforce the act after 10 years, and so swiftly, without any conversations, is interesting, and seemingly quite political.”