In House of Commons written responses to the NDP, the Conservatives say that just 22 of the 961 unpaid interns were subsequently brought on to work for the government.
All federal agencies and departments were required to provide responses to NDP MP Laurin Liu's questions about their respective unpaid interns except for those that were part of the so-called Post-Secondary Co-operative Education and Internship Program.
That government initiative allows students to get hands-on experience with federal organizations.
Separate from that program, Veteran Affairs Canada hosted the most unpaid interns of any department, with 142 since 2008, but only one was later hired on as a paid employee, the responses reveal. The Department of National Defence had 57 interns; seven were offered jobs.
In 2011, for example, Veterans Affairs employed 36 unpaid interns in Ontario for 15-week stints. They worked an average of 37.5 hours a week.
A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs said the department "provides high-school and university students with on-the-job training and valuable work experience in an office environment to complement education and to help fulfill program requirements."
The Department of National Defence had 57 interns; seven were offered jobs.
The length of the other internships across the 32 departments and agencies ranged from just a few weeks to several months. Many interns worked more than 30 hours a week during their stints.
According to the responses, a host of departments had no information because they don't track unpaid interns, while others had missing data for several years. In an interview, Liu said the dearth of information was troubling, as was the low hiring rate.
"It's really surprising how few of them were actually hired," she added. "It's only 2.3 per cent, which is really dismal."
Liu has tabled a private member's bill, C-636, that would limit the use of non-educational internships in federally regulated industries by ensuring that all unpaid internships are linked to an educational program or primarily benefit the intern, not the employer.
The bill would also extend all workplace standards and safety provisions to interns. Last June, a spokesman for Labour Minister Kellie Leitch said the government was taking a close look at the proposed legislation.
Unpaid internships have been in the national spotlight since Andrew Ferguson, a student at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, died in 2011 while driving home from an intern job. He had worked a 16-hour day at a radio station.
Last year, the Ontario government cracked down on the practice at several Toronto-based magazines, including Flare, owned by Rogers Media, and the Walrus.
Those publications have since ceased to employ unpaid interns and telecommunications giant Bell Mobility shelved its massive unpaid internship program last summer in the face of a growing public outcry.
In November, however, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz rankled advocates for young workers when he recommended that jobless university graduates living in their parents' basements beef up their resumes by working for free.
"Sadly, none of this is terribly surprising; this government has consistently displayed little interest in addressing the problems young workers face, such as underemployment, growing inequality and precarious work," said Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer who advocates for young workers.
"Now they seem to be contributing to the growing problem of unpaid internships."
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