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“Vol­un­teerism.” This word was key when Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau ap­peared be­fore the House of Com­mons fi­nance com­mit­tee last week. Op­po­si­tion mem­bers re­ferred to the Canada Stu­dent Ser­vices Grant (CSSG) as pay­ment for a job. The prime min­is­ter ar­gued that the pay­ment was a re­ward for a vol­un­teer. NDP crit­ics Char­lie Angus and Peter Ju­lian ar­gued that the CSSG grant — $10 per hour — broke min­i­mum wage laws. So, who is right?

The term “vol­un­teer,” first used around 1600, was de­rived from the Mid­dle French word “vol­un­taire” as “one who offers him­self for mil­i­tary ser­vice” rather than be­ing con­scripted. It de­rives from the Latin word “vol­un­tar­ius” mean­ing “vol­un­tary, of one’s free will.” The first non-mil­i­tary use of the word was recorded in 1630 — even though vol­un­teerism goes back cen­turies: re­li­gions have long en­cour­aged their mem­bers to help the poor and ill. Over time, according to the Cam­bridge English Dic­tio­nary, vol­un­teerism be­came de­fined as “not be­ing forced nor paid to do it.”

Vol­un­teer work is highly valu­able in to­day’s world. Those look­ing to con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety vol­un­teer to work in soup kitchens, hos­pi­tals and many other places. They also vol­un­teer their ser­vices to both for-profit and non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions as un­paid in­terns to gain work ex­pe­ri­ence (in­terns are of­ten paid but not in all cases).

Mea­sures of gross na­tional prod­uct only in­clude mar­ket-based trans­ac­tions and thus don’t pick up the value of vol­un­teer work. The size of the vol­un­teer econ­omy has been es­ti­mated at about 13 per cent of the econ­omy, not in­clud­ing the vol­un­teer’s time. In eco­nomic terms, the value of an hour of a per­son’s vol­un­teer time is the loss in the after-tax wage from work­ing (if the per­son is un­em­ployed, the value of time is less than the after-tax wage). When you do in­clude the value of


time, the vol­un­teer sec­tor is sur­pris­ingly large.

Of course, em­ploy­ers could avoid pay­ing wages by tak­ing on vol­un­teers to do work. If less ex­pe­ri­enced un­paid work­ers are sub­sti­tuted for ex­pe­ri­enced paid work­ers, mar­kets can be dis­torted. Not to men­tion that the gov­ern­ment loses tax rev­enue. Em­ploy­ment and tax law are there­fore quite care­ful to dis­tin­guish be­tween em­ploy­ment, self-em­ploy­ment and vol­un­teerism.

For ex­am­ple, fed­eral U.S. em­ploy­ment law de­fines a “vol­un­teer” in state and local gov­ern­ment as “an in­di­vid­ual who per­forms hours of ser­vice for a pub­lic agency, civic, char­i­ta­ble or hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons, with­out prom­ise, ex­pec­ta­tion or re­ceipt of com­pen­sa­tion for ser­vices rendered.” More vaguely, the Gov­ern­ment of Canada web­site de­fines vol­un­teer­ing as time given “to strengthen your com­mu­nity.” It lists var­i­ous non-mon­e­tary ben­e­fits such as “speak­ing to your pas­sion” and “build­ing on your ex­pe­ri­ences” but makes no men­tion of not re­ceiv­ing a mon­e­tary ben­e­fit.

Stu­dents might be given paid or vol­un­tary in­tern­ships to work for profit or non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions. Still, the is­sue of un­paid in­tern­ships be­came quite con­tro­ver­sial sev­eral years ago when law firms were hir­ing stu­dents on a vol­un­teer ba­sis rather than pay­ing their in­terns who were do­ing sim­i­lar work. Most prov­inces pro­vide an ex­cep­tion to the em­ploy­ment laws for stu­dents who are us­ing vol­un­teer op­por­tu­ni­ties as part of their ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram or train­ing. In 2017, the Canada Labour Code was amended to limit un­paid in­tern­ships in the fed­er­ally reg­u­lated pri­vate sec­tor. Those will­ing to work with­out pay­ment would not be called in­terns — they would be vol­un­teers.

This gets us to the CSSG de­bate: is the money a re­ward for vol­un­teerism or pay­ment for an in­tern­ship? Re­gard­less of le­gal dis­tinc­tions, most Cana­di­ans would think stu­dents are not “vol­un­teer­ing” if they ex­pect to be paid $10 per hour. The prime min­is­ter would be cor­rect if an award were given at a later time based on performanc­e. But, if the stu­dent is ex­pect­ing the pay­ment no mat­ter how well the work is done, it seems a bit of a stretch to call it a re­ward. In other words, if it walks and squawks like a duck, it must be a duck. Paid vol­un­teerism is not vol­un­teerism.

There is a twist here, how­ever. The CSSG is paid di­rectly to the stu­dent, which makes it un­like the Canada Sum­mer Jobs pro­gram, in which the employer gets a grant to com­pen­sate for the em­ployed stu­dent’s wage costs. WE Char­ity was to be re­spon­si­ble for screen­ing, on­board­ing and match­ing stu­dents with non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions, as well as the dis­burse­ment of grants. I could not find any state­ments on ac­count­abil­ity but the “employer” pre­sum­ably would need to sign off that the stu­dent had in fact pro­vided the vol­un­teer work sat­is­fac­to­rily in order for the stu­dent to re­ceive the CSSG pay­ment. There is no di­rect em­ploy­ment con­tract be­tween the employer and em­ployee, but the employer still di­rects the vol­un­teer and has a duty of care (e.g., safety) whether or not the per­son is paid.

Char­lie Angus and Peter Ju­lian’s ar­gu­ment that the CSSG vi­o­lated min­i­mum wage em­ploy­ment stan­dards is ob­vi­ously com­pli­cated. If we look at the CSSG as a pay­ment for stu­dent in­terns — not vol­un­teerism — fed­eral law would re­quire a min­i­mum wage be paid. If the CSSG is viewed as re­ward, how­ever, then min­i­mum wage laws would not ap­ply.

The CSSG seemed to over­step the line be­tween paid and vol­un­teer work. Had no pay­ment been in­volved, then the stu­dent was truly be­ing a vol­un­teer. In my view, bet­ter to think of it as a paid stu­dent in­tern­ship.

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