SHOULD VOLUNTEERS BE PAID?
“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
MOST CANADIANS WOULD THINK STUDENTS ARE NOT “VOLUNTEERING” IF THEY EXPECT TO BE PAID.
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.