WE Charity is out of grant program, but issues remain with paying student volunteers

·8 min read

WE Charity may no longer be in charge of administering the Canada Student Service Grant, but concerns remain about whether it's appropriate to pay students effectively less than minimum wage for their volunteer hours, and whether offering such grants during the COVID-19 pandemic might exacerbate the problem of precarious work for young people, not solve it.

On Friday, WE Charity stepped back from its $19.5 million sole-source contract to administer the grant program for the federal government. The precise terms of the contract remain undisclosed.

Following the WE organization's resignation — first characterized as a "mutually agreed upon decision" by Minister Bardish Chagger and then described by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "a decision taken by WE ... that we support" — Trudeau encouraged students to continue to participate in the $912 million volunteer grant program as federal bureaucrats assume operational responsibility.

The prime minister also reminded reporters that he's advocated for young people his entire life.

Five days earlier Trudeau defended the program's design, which gives students $1,000 for every 100 hours they volunteer, up to a maximum of $5,000.

"The idea of giving bonus grants to young people who serve has long existed," the prime minister said.

But Toronto-based labour lawyer Andrew Langille, a longtime advocate for fair compensation for interns and other young workers, disputes Trudeau's claim that this is common practice.

"I think he's trying to avoid answering difficult questions around the expansion of yet another low-wage pool of labour," Langille said.

It's great for young people to volunteer, the lawyer said. "The problem is when you blur the lines and start paying an hourly rate that is below the minimum wage."

"It falls into the grey area that we saw with unpaid internships and the vast expansion of precarious employment targeting young people."

Employees versus volunteers

By design, the grant program puts a value on a student's time, calculating an hour of their labour in a volunteer position as worth $10 in grant money.

Minimum wage in Canadian jurisdictions is at least $11 per hour and significantly more in Ontario ($14) and Alberta ($15).

In fact, the program may value student time as worth even less than $10, because the grant is calculated using 100-hour thresholds. A student who volunteers for 179 hours, for example, is still only eligible for a taxable $1,000 grant because hours are rounded down. Students need to reach the full 200 hours to get $2,000, and so on, up to the $5,000 maximum for 500 hours.

Since students could only start accumulating hours after the late June launch — two months after college and university students finished final exams — a student who hopes to earn the maximum grant before returning to full-time studies in September could need to volunteer for 50 hours a week — well beyond full-time hours.

Alternatively, students can keep accumulating hours until Oct. 31. The grant will be paid within 60 days of a student applying.

Legislation like Ontario's Employment Standards Act leaves "very little wriggle room," Langille said, for organizations hoping to avoid provincial regulations governing paid work.

Ontario's criteria for what constitutes employment includes things like an application process, a set payment based on hours worked, control over activities performed and a requirement to work certain hours per week. All of these are part of Ottawa's grant scheme.

"These young people are clearly employees more than volunteers," Langille said.

If they're employees, their compensation and benefits should include things like Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance premiums and workplace safety insurance. Any program that appears to deny young people their right to the minimum wage could be in violation of Ontario's Human Rights Code or even the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said.

Trevor Brine/CBC
Trevor Brine/CBC

The fact that it's a federal government program isn't enough to provide cover for violation of provincial employment laws, Langille said, and the organizations that supervise the volunteers could be liable for violations.

He also cautions the directors of participating charities or non-profits that they could be personally financially liable for unpaid wages.

The federal Liberals brought in changes to the Canada Labour Code to clamp down on things like unpaid interns at federally regulated employers. "From a public policy perspective, it's a bit bizarre" to encourage precarious work during a pandemic that's already been devastating for young workers, Langille said.

Undervaluing youth labour is "quite shocking, coming from a prime minister that supposedly claims that he values young people."

Young people can be less aware of their rights than more experienced workers are, he added — all the more reason for a government-funded scheme to take particular care.

'Sweatshop wages'

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said the 2008 recession brought an increase in precarious work, and now he fears this grant program is institutionalizing a similar kind of precariousness during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated the "gig economy" in which so many young people participate.

Many of the postings on the grant's website are skilled jobs requiring the talents of a post-secondary student, the NDP critic said, but they're paying "sweatshop wages."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

"How can [a program like this] be a social good when people are having to work so far below the minimum wage?" he said. "I don't see how this is going to evade a serious labour challenge.

"Young people are desperate for the jobs. Should that be legal? I don't think so. Is that ethical? Absolutely not," Angus said. "The red flags are everywhere with this program."

The $900 million allocated to the program could have been used to better effect, he said. "The charity sector is in freefall," with mass layoffs looming because non-profit organizations can't carry out their regular activities in the community.

On CBC Radio's The House on Saturday, Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the Canada Summer Jobs program, which has been run by the federal government for nearly two decades, could easily have been retooled to give more placements for students with charities and other non-profits.

Angus said he and other MPs were asked to identify 25 organizations in their ridings that could desperately use youth this summer to help with the pandemic. His office did a lot of work finding employers capable of training and supervising students — even meaningful work for graduate students. But Canada Summer Jobs funding never came through for most of these recommendations.

Charitable sector has concerns

Aine McGlynn, chief operating officer of The Good Partnership, which helps non-profit organizations grow and fundraise effectively, said anecdotally, she's noticed that the Canada Summer Jobs program only approved half of the jobs it did in past years for organizations she knows, and they've wondered why.

McGlynn was one of several professionals from the charitable sector who penned an open letter this week about their discomfort with the way the student grant program was being administered and started a petition.

The group called the grant timelines "improbable" and said "volunteerism isn't supposed to replace paid work."

While the program stipulates that volunteers shouldn't be used by an organization to replace paid employees, McGlynn's group reviewed some of the posted positions and found job titles like "translator," "digital designer" and "content creator."

"These all describe roles where a person would reasonably expect to be paid," the open letter said. "Monetization of volunteerism will create unusual downstream dynamics, rebranding volunteerism and blurring the line as to what qualifies as underpaid employment."

Tom Steepe/CBC
Tom Steepe/CBC

"It's a privilege to be able to volunteer," McGlynn told CBC News, noting that financially vulnerable groups often don't have the luxury of doing work that doesn't pay their bills.

"Our position is not to say that volunteerism is sacrosanct and there should never be any kind of exploration of what it looks like to make it more accessible," she said.

But she agrees with labour lawyer Langille that "it is not standard" in her sector for volunteers to be paid, beyond reimbursing expenses like child-care costs, transportation or refreshments.

She's seen grant applications that involve paying stipends to volunteers rejected by funding agencies that aren't keen on the concept.

Paula Speevak of Volunteer Canada said before the grant program launched, her organization asked Employment and Social Development Canada not to equate hours for dollars and flagged several other issues.

Volunteer Canada was asked but did not agree to be a sub-contractor under WE Charity to assist with program administration.

"We don't want to create the impression that people ought to be paid for volunteering," Speevak told CBC News. "Nor do we want to create the impression that you can pay somebody less than minimum wage just by calling it volunteering, thereby being somewhat exploitive.

"We really want to make sure that there's clarity about — without being purist — the idea that volunteers give freely of their time because of their passion, because of their compassion," she said.