Is It Work if You Don’t Get Paid for It?

The British Columbia Labour Relations Board is struggling this week to answer a deceptively simple question: what is work?

That question is part of the ongoing bargaining dispute between the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and BC’s provincial government (represented in this situation by the BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA)). In mid-March, the provincial legislature passed the controversial Bill 22, which imposed a six-month cooling-off period in the dispute and restricted both the union and the employers from any job action during that time. The BCTF responded by holding a membership vote on whether to withdraw voluntary labour – which is the unpaid time that teachers spend on such activities as facilitating student sports, clubs, and events.

The majority of the BCTF membership voted to withhold their voluntary labour (with much debate on both sides of the issue), and the BCPSEA has now taken the BCTF to the Labour Relations Board, arguing that the withdrawal of volunteer services constitutes strike action, which Bill 22 forbids. The BCPSEA’s complaint lists a wide range of teacher “duties and activities that occur outside of instructional hours” and states that these are “regularly and ordinarily performed by teachers in their capacity as teachers employed by the School Boards”. It also argues that some of these activities may be required rather than voluntary.

As noted in this article, the union is arguing that any volunteer labour before or after school hours is not “work” – and if it is not work, then withdrawing it is not a strike.

It’s because of disputes like this that most labour relations legislation – including BC’s own Labour Relations Code– has definitions of common terms, like “employer” and “employee”.  Students in my industrial relations classes are often surprised that these words need to be defined, because everyone knows what they mean – the employee works for the employer, and the employer pays them for what they do. But when you start thinking about things like contract workers, temporary workers, part-time workers, subsidiary companies, and franchised companies, suddenly it’s not so simple to decide who fits into these categories. It soon becomes apparent that the definitions are necessary so that everyone understands what the legislation is talking about.

However, the BC Labour Relations Code does not define “work”.  So the BCPSEA’s complaint could have a very important outcome that might be influential in other situations. It could be argued that if teachers commit to a long-term volunteer role, then, similar to the labour relations principle of past practice, it would be unfair for employees to suddenly decide that those commitments are no longer part of what they do. On the other hand, it could be argued that since volunteer work is unpaid work, and by definition is voluntary, an employer has no right to expect or demand those commitments from its employees, and employees are entitled to withdraw that work without penalty.

I’ll post more on this case as it unfolds.

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