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Brother of deceased radio station intern hopes new bill will prevent abuse

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OTTAWA - The Harper government is taking a look at an NDP bill aimed at ending the exploitation of unpaid interns in Canada, but wouldn't say Monday whether it plans to support the move or bring in legislation of its own.

"We are currently reviewing the bill’s proposals and we won’t be able to comment until that review is complete," a spokesman for Labour Minister Kellie Leitch said after the bill was introduced in the House of Commons.

If passed, the bill would cap the number of hours an intern can work for federally regulated employers and grant interns the right to refuse dangerous work. It would also set conditions for the use of interns and provide protection from sexual harassment.

"Our government is committed to keeping Canadian workplaces safe, fair and productive," Leitch's press secretary Andrew McGrath said in an email.

Matt Ferguson, whose 22-year-old brother Andy died in a head-on collision in 2011 after working excessive hours as an unpaid intern at an Edmonton radio station, called the bill a move in the right direction.

"I think this is a huge step forward and hopefully something positive can come out of this," Ferguson told a news conference.

Ferguson said his brother died not because he was unpaid, but because he was forced to work for too long — a morning shift and then all night, with just five hours off over a 24-hour span.

The NDP bill is limited to federally regulated workplaces and would not affect interns working in businesses or government institutions regulated by the provinces.

But it's better than having no protections at all, which is what currently exists, said NDP MP Andrew Cash, who co-sponsored the bill with fellow MP Laurin Liu.

"There's many employers that take this very seriously; there's very good programs set up through universities and colleges," said Cash.

"But it is a bit of a Wild West out there in that ... if you are working at an internship program, you're at the whims of an employer who is not paying you. And sometimes that has turned, in some cases, tragic."

The use of unpaid interns has been hotly debated both in Canada and the United States, where some young people work for free — often for months at a time — in hopes of earning workplace experience or a full-time job.

Saskatchewan and Ontario recently cracked down on unpaid internships, and Alberta is under pressure to do the same.

Ontario, for example, considers interns to be employees that must be paid unless an employer meets strict conditions, or if the intern is a college or university student.

In British Columbia, unpaid internships are illegal unless the internship provides "hands-on" training as part of a formal educational program, or for certain professions such as law or engineering.

Several American states have also enacted tougher measures against unpaid internships. And Britain recently banned the practice outright.

Employers in the U.S. are also being taken to task under current laws designed to limit abuse of interns. Just last week, a class action lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles by a former intern for the Los Angeles Clippers, alleging that the NBA franchise violated U.S. labour laws by not paying its interns.

It is rare for a private member's bill to become law.

But whether this bill gets through the House of Commons or not, the important thing is that people are talking about the issue, said Ferguson.

"The more people talk about it, that's the only way that change will happen," he said. "And maybe the government will feel more pressure to actually do something."

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