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Guidelines for unpaid co-op work terms

UWaterloo's point of view on unpaid and low-paid co-op positions

As the operator of the largest co-operative education program in the world, employing students in more than 17,000 work terms every year, Waterloo adheres to internal standards of quality for co-operative education as well as the criteria for co-op program accreditation by Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada – both require that co-op students are paid for the work they do. Normally, as a result, all Waterloo co-op positions, posted or student arranged own jobs (AOJ), must pay at least minimum wage as it is specified within jurisdiction of employment. The University of Waterloo acknowledges, as do many other providers of internship and co-op programs, that some number of work terms will be unpaid or low-pay (paid less than minimum wage).  Waterloo, however, pursues a strategy to realize an absolute minimum number of unpaid co-op positions. The guidelines below are in place to allow Co-operative Education to proactively manage the approval for credit of unpaid co-op positions on an exception basis for students in unique situations or with special circumstances of need. Our goal is to continuously reduce the number of unpaid and low-pay co-op positions year over year.  

General guidelines

Note: Approval is not guaranteed when unpaid or low-pay positions satisfy the criteria outlined below.  In some jurisdictions, employment legislation prohibits unpaid or low-pay employment (e.g. British Columbia), and as such, the following guidelines will not apply.  In all cases, students should discuss unpaid or low-pay positions with their Co-operative Education Student Advisor to determine whether or not the opportunity is eligible for co-op credit.

  1. Unpaid or low-pay co-op positions with the following types of organizations may be approved on a case-by-case basis. Approval must be obtained prior to starting the work term, consult with your CECA advisor for assistance with the approval process.
    1. Clinical and medical settings where it is not the practice to pay students in co-op or intern positions.  (Note: Waterloo will not assume liability for unpaid students in clinical and medical settings.) 
    2. Startups and new entrepreneurial ventures. 
    3. Charitable organizations, NGOs, not-for-profits, or humanitarian organizations.
    4. Unpaid research positions at academic institutions outside of UWaterloo will not be approved.  These low-pay academic research positions require a minimum cash stipend of CDN $3000.
  2. In order to assess whether an arranged own unpaid job will be approved for co-op credit, the student must consult with their Co-op advisor and begin the process by submitting a Job Information Form prior to starting work.
  3. Unpaid and low-pay positions will not be approved for co-op credit as follows:
    1. Positions that require students to pay an application or participation fee.
    2. Positions having full or partial commission as the only monetary compensation.
    3. Work settings where unpaid students will work side-by-side with paid students.

​Special guidelines


All international positions, paid or unpaid, currently under Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Development (DFATD) advisory levels “avoid non-essential travel” and “avoid all travel” will not be approved for credit as per UWaterloo policy.

  1. Unpaid or low pay international opportunities outside Canada and the U.S. may be approved for co-op credit where it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the international account manager that not paying students is the prevailing market and/or cultural norm in that locale, otherwise:
    1. Rate of pay shall be commensurate with the local labour market conditions.
    2. Domestic multinationals in offshore locations must provide compensation regardless of local practices where non-payment of co-op students is the norm. The rate of pay may be commensurate with the local labour market condition


The following unpaid or low-pay positions sponsored by, or provided under the auspices of Waterloo, and where paid and unpaid students are not normally working side-by-side, may be approved for credit:

  1. Unpaid research positions with Waterloo faculty or staff after all reasonable efforts to find paid employment have failed and the minimum 12-week duration requirement is not likely to be met. Normally this means that the approval and acceptance of unpaid research jobs on campus will not occur until the first month of the work term. (Faculty of Science co-op jobs must be paid)​
  2. Students may receive credit without pay for a work term during which they engage in their own entrepreneurial ventures under the auspices of Co-operative Education recognized Waterloo initiatives or programs (e.g., student ventures through Velocity, Greenhouse and/or the Conrad Centre can earn credit through the Enterprise Co-op program)
  3. Unpaid co-op positions may be approved that are part of a formalized competitive team sponsored by and/or endorsed by a Waterloo faculty (e.g., Midnight Sun Team). Approval and acceptance of student team jobs will not occur until the first month of the scheduled work term. Once the job is approved, students will be asked to complete a Student Teams Agreement form which requires signatures from the team lead and faculty sponsor.  Students are limited to one such unpaid work term during their co-op sequence.​
  4. Unpaid co-op positions may be approved for formally documented Waterloo educational programs or opportunities that have been developed in advance of hiring and in conjunction with Co-operative Education to provide a work-integrated learning alternative to traditional co-op jobs for first work term students only (e.g., BETS (Bridging Entrepreneurs to Students); BSETS (Bridging Social Entrepreneurs to Students)).  Normally these positions will be posted during the Co-operative Education core employment process.  Students are limited to one such work term during their co-op sequence.
  5. Unpaid co-op positions may be approved for special research and administrative positions arranged between a Waterloo faculty or staff member and students with demonstrated exceptional or special needs as detailed by the AccessAbility Office.