01/21/2015 10:31 EST | Updated 03/23/2015 01:59 EDT

Harper Government's Tune On Unpaid Interns Changed With NDP Bill

OTTAWA - Internal documents show the federal government's messaging on unpaid interns abruptly changed last June, on the same day the NDP tabled a private member's bill calling for full Canada Labour Code protections to interns.

Briefing notes and so-called House cards for Labour Minister Kellie Leitch — dated from August to October 2013 — stated that "internships, training and volunteers are generally not considered employees and thus not covered" under the code.

On June 16, 2014, Leitch was given a new House card — talking points, essentially, for question period. It indicated the code "applies to all workers where an employer-employee relationship exists, including interns."

The code itself, however, doesn't make mention of interns or volunteers, unpaid or otherwise, suggesting Leitch's new messaging was a matter of interpretation by government officials.

Leitch's new briefing notes were sent to her on the same day the federal NDP tabled the private member's bill.

MP Laurin Liu's bill, C-636, 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 otherwise are primarily of benefit to the intern, not the employer.

The bill, to be debated in the coming weeks, would also extend all workplace standards and safety provisions to interns. Last June, Leitch's office said the government was taking a close look at the proposed legislation.

NDP MP Andrew Cash called it "troublesome" that Leitch received contradictory advice about how federal laws applied to unpaid interns, adding it appears the messaging changed simply in response to the proposed legislation.

"We know that those who work as unpaid interns or engage in training of their own volition are not considered employees, and therefore don't fall under the code," Cash said in a recent interview.

"The government clearly knows there is a problem here, that there is a gap in how we protect workers."

Andrew McGrath, a spokesman for Leitch, described the information provided to the labour minister as "correct and consistent."

"There has been no policy change on this matter," he said in an email.

"The change in language was introduced on the stated date because the facts regarding the differences between paid and unpaid interns were becoming confused in some of the media coverage at the time of the private member's bill introduction."

He added the change "better reflected the realities of what the Canada Labour Code actually covers."

Liu pressed Leitch about protections for unpaid interns in November in the House of Commons.

Leitch replied that employees "who believe that their rights under the Canada Labour Code have been violated ... should bring that matter forward to the Canada labour program. We will deal with it immediately."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25