Whether for good or for now, Bell Canada has shut down its extensive unpaid internship program.
Hundreds of young people have gone through what’s known as the Professional Management Program based at the telecom giant’s Mississauga offices.
The full-time program is at the heart of an ongoing federal labour dispute between Bell and former intern Jainna Patel seeking back wages for work done in 2012.
Patel’s Toronto lawyer, Tim Gleason, speculated Bell may have cut the program to prevent new claims against the company.
“They may be cutting their loses or cutting the amount of damage they’re liable for,” he said.
“If Bell has decided to pay people for their work, this is a positive development. Not just for Ms. Patel, but for all of Bell’s employees.”
The program website has been removed and the telephone number disconnected. “The Professional Management Program was completed last April and is no longer available,” said Bell spokesman Albert Lee.
It’s the latest in a series of high-profile internship cancellations in the face of increasing scrutiny and backlash against using unpaid workers. Earlier this year, the provincial labour ministry cracked down on unpaid internships in the publishing industry. Private member’s bills have been introduced at both the provincial and federal levels in an attempt to monitor and regulate the practice.
There’s now a “heightened awareness” surrounding the issue, said Toronto NDP MP Andrew Cash. In June, the NDP introduced the Intern Protection Act, a private member’s bill to be debated this fall, and a bill to create a National Urban Workers Strategy was introduced in October.
“Some companies have voluntarily started to reassess their internship programs and pay people. Others are saying, ‘Look, we just want to follow the rules.’ But in the absence of rules, companies are going to do what companies can do,” Cash said.
A finance committee chaired by Conservative MP James Rajotte recommended in a June report that the federal government start to collect data on unpaid internships in Canada, study their impact and work with the provinces to “ensure the appropriate protections under relevant labour codes.”
Without a clear law, it’s possible Bell could launch an identical program in the future. Telecommunications companies are regulated under the Canada Labour Code, a federal law that includes no explicit rules governing unpaid internships. Under Ontario law, most unpaid internships are illegal unless done in exchange for a high school, college or university credit, and are not allowed to benefit the employer.
Former intern Natalie Horbay said an entire floor was dedicated to interns like herself. She was enrolled in the geographic information systems program in 2011, but found herself doing customer service phone surveys and other tasks unrelated to her internship. She quit after three months, although had been asked to commit to six.
“It didn’t even feel like we were working for Bell,” she said. “There were jobs in our field that came up and not a single person even got a single phone interview.”
According to a 20-page brochure no longer available, interns — known as “associates” — were selected from over 30 countries for roles in fields like geospatial analysis, marketing, human resources, communications and “strategic intelligence.”
Canadian Intern Association president Claire Seaborn said she was pleased by the program cancellation.
“Hopefully this means we will have more paid entry-level positions because, based on the work those interns were doing, those were things that Bell needed, and they will probably have to replace them with paid staff members,” Seaborn said, adding she was surprised by the timing.
Former Bell intern Patel has appealed a 2013 decision that denied her claim for back wages for work she did under the program in 2012. Patel claimed the work had no educational value and that she was doing the same work as paid employees.
A hearing before an independent adjudicator is set for this fall.
Federal Labour Minister Kellie Leitch said she could not comment on a case before the courts.