Volunteers, Interns & Other Free Help

The use of Volunteers & Interns among other companies is an interesting area of Human Resources.  What I’m talking about in particular are the free offers that we see all too often. There are two major areas in my mind, the Legal & Ethical side of using this help.


On the legal side of things, there’s significant danger about inadvertently being liable for wages and backpay for volunteers & interns.  Details on the ESA/WRA issues can be found here, but the important part is basically that if an intern / volunteer does work that an employee normally does, that individual is considered an employee.

Now, there’s further issues on top of that.  It’s possible that if an intern / volunteer does work that you’d normally assign to an employee, they might be considered an employee as well and the work they do paid work.


Alright, so there’s an issue that as a business, you could be liable for the wages and other costs.  The Ethical side on the other hand is a bit more nebulous.   Obviously,if you ask someone to do work for you and not pay them, that’s not particularly nice.

On the other hand, many of the internships offered provide benefit in terms of actual practical experience.  When I first arrived in Canada, finding work was extremely difficult as most employers wanted / needed you to have ‘Canadian experience’.  Frankly, if there was work that was free that I could have done to get that experience, I probably would have.  Not forever obviously, but for 3 – 6 months?

Students face the same trouble too sometimes, depending on their skill set / career paths.  Some jobs are just so much in demand that unless you can show some relevant experience / practical work, it’s really hard to get a real job.  And so, volunteers or internships.

It’s not a nice way of doing it because you are taking advantage of the needy, and frankly, the companies that do it seem just a bit on the scuzzy side.  On the other hand, these individuals are doing this on their own free will.  It’s not something we’d want to do (unless we are talking about a real practicum for a student); but it’s something that I can see both sides of.