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Ryan Holmes, HootSuite’s CEO

Grant Harder/Grant Harder

The Vancouver-based digital media company HootSuite has never been shy about its practice of hiring unpaid interns. But a barrage of criticism – over social-media channels, naturally – has forced the firm to reconsider its reliance on wage-less workers.

An April 5 posting on Reddit, a social news website, suggested that the company is breaking the law.

The post attracted more than 400 comments overnight, some debating whether the company's interns would be able to file a complaint under the provincial Employment Standards Act, which requires such work to be paid.

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By Sunday, the company website's careers section had removed this reference from a string of job listings: "Note this position is a three month internship at present with a commitment of Monday to Friday with core hours of 9 a.m. -5 p.m. and that the role is unpaid."

The Reddit thread revealed a deep well of frustration with the practice of unpaid internships – especially within a tech-savvy crowd with a penchant for capturing online images before they can be removed or amended.

Contributors posted the original want ads, a sample of HootSuite's internship contract, as well as a 2011 article from the company's community marketing director, Dave Olson, outlining the practice.

"My internships are (almost) always non-paid," he wrote. In exchange, he urges employers to give them cool job titles and meaningful assignments. "You are receiving free (or cheap) labour and in exchange, you should share your experience, feedback and inside tips and tactics," he advised.

In an e-mail statement provided on Sunday, HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes said his company is reviewing its hiring policies and suggested some of the interns could yet see a paycheque. "Our legal review indicates that no more than 15 HootSuite's interns in the past 12 months may be affected by the unpaid internship guidelines and will be reviewed by our team," the statement read. "If we learn these internships are not compliant, we will fix it." He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Under B.C.'s Employment Standards Act, which applies to non-union workers, employees must be paid at least the minimum wage (currently $10.25 per hour), and an intern performing duties and responsibilities that would normally be assigned to an employee must be paid the same wages and benefits that an employee would collect.

The provincial law defines an internship as "on-the-job training offered by an employer to provide a person with practical experience." But if they are doing work, they need to be treated as an employee. The intern positions currently offered at HootSuite include "affiliate marketing," "strategic accounts analyst" and "social media coach."

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In a six-page sample contract posted online, with the signatory's name blanked out, it appears the company sought to have its interns waive any rights to compensation, while at the same time demanding ownership of any content they create. HootSuite is named as the "exclusive owner of the deliverables and of all other results of the services and of all intellectual property rights," it states, while "the intern shall have no claim against the company … for vacation pay, sick leave, retirement benefits, social security, workers' compensation, health or disability benefits, unemployment insurance benefits, or employee benefits of any kind." The contract adds: "As full compensation for the services rendered … the company shall pay the intern the sum of $0 with total payment not to exceed this amount."

In his statement, Mr. Holmes maintained the "overwhelming majority" of his company's interns and employees enjoy their jobs.

Pat Bell, the minister responsible for the Employment Standards Act, could not be reached for comment on Sunday. An official from his ministry said there have been no complaints to date about HootSuite.

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