The parliamentary secretary to Labour Minister Kellie Leitch is meeting this week with various stakeholders about unpaid interns, stoking hopes among advocates that the federal government may be ready to make changes.
One participant said Cathy McLeod's consultations suggest unpaid interns could soon be given workplace standards and safety protections under the Canada Labour Code — something the federal NDP is calling for in a private member's bill.
"This is the first time that we've heard from the federal government on this; they've been completely silent until now," Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, said in an interview on Monday following a discussion with McLeod.
"My take on the meeting is that they're probably going to take action to amend the Canada Labour Code .... the question is whether they're going to include interns who are not students under minimum wage laws, and that's what I'm pushing for."
Seaborn's association is among several student, intern and union groups meeting with McLeod this week.
Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer who advocates for young workers, also sat down with McLeod on Monday and argued that some of the biggest, most profitable corporations in Canada shouldn't be using unpaid labour.
Langille said he also told McLeod that the government should be funding paid employment opportunities for young Canadians.
"She seemed interested in expanding health and safety protections. But I did not get the sense they were excited about the prospect of regulating internships and I don't know where they might go on that front," he said.
Leitch spokesman Andrew McGrath played down the consultations.
"Stakeholder consultation is common on legislation before Parliament," he said, but added that McLeod was discussing unpaid interns "as it pertains to the federally regulated workspace."
NDP MP Laurin Liu's bill would limit the use of non-educational internships in federally regulated industries by ensuring that all unpaid internships are either linked to an educational program or the internship primarily benefits the intern, not the employer.
The bill is expected to be debated in the weeks to come. When the proposed legislation was tabled last summer, Leitch's office said it was taking a close look at its provisions.
Telecommunications companies and banks are among the federally regulated industries that use unpaid interns. Bell Mobility scrapped its massive unpaid intern program last summer in the face of a growing public outcry.
Andrew Cash, another NDP MP who has long called for protections for unpaid interns, said he was cautiously optimistic that change could be afoot.
He said McLeod's consultations are a "marked change" from the government's insistence, as recently as last week, that unpaid interns are protected by the Canada Labour Code.
"If the government is responding to the pressure and the input that our party has committed to the issue, then it could be a good development for young workers. But we'll see," he said.
Cash said he has heard personally from the appalled parents of adult children working for free for profitable, federally regulated corporations.
"They are just beside themselves about the fact that in federally regulated industries, there are none of the protections that other employees have. It is outrageous, and it has to change."