Canadian Contractor

John Bleasby   

Quebec forced to cut union power over volunteer labor

Canadian Contractor

Contractors involved in community goodwill projects should take heed

When it comes to volunteer construction in La Belle Province, no good deed goes unpunished. Imagine how the families in a small Quebec town felt when a provincial construction inspector ordered a team of volunteers to stop painting their local school. The inspector told them they didn’t have the proper licences to do the work and demanded their names. One of those volunteers was the town mayor. He refused, resulting in a threat from the inspector to call the provincial police.

The mayor finally relented and hired licensed professionals at $94 an hour to do the work. In fact, the company hired didn’t want to charge the town, however the union reportedly forced them to charge full price.

Unions in Quebec have unmatched power over construction
The story went national in March, pressuring the Quebec government to announce upcoming changes to labor rules that would allow volunteer work to proceed on certain types of construction. The unions are not happy about this, of course. They’re a juggernaut with a firm grip on all construction work in the province and aren’t keen to relinquish any turf. Quebec currently has 26 categories under which workers must be both certified and union members. Compare that to Ontario, where less than ten categories require certification. This situation has led to complaints from business operators in Quebec, confirmed by many experts and observers, that the unions’ tight grip in the province only forces costs higher.

Contractors getting involved in community projects is a good thing. Just check the rules about the use of volunteers first!

Volunteerism is good, but it’s complicated
While Quebec intends to loosen the rules to allow unlicensed workers to install gypsum, windows, countertops and refinishing floors, it raises the issue of volunteer or unpaid labor on job sites across the country. For example, say you are a conscientious contractor in your area and want to help with a community project. Maybe it’s an addition to a community centre, a new playground, simply sprucing up an existing facility, or building community housing like a Habitat for Humanity project. Perhaps you are coordinating with a local high school construction program and would like to include some students on a construction project to give them some hands-on experience. These great initiatives cannot be undertaken in a vacuum of information. Given the mix of your professional crew and volunteers from the community, you need to know how your intentions fall in line with provincial labor codes in your province.


According the CMHC web site, “A decision to use volunteer labour must be based on a careful analysis for the project at hand to see if using volunteer labour is a financially prudent choice.” Issues include the project’s total cost, whether the work requires skilled or unskilled labor, on-site separation of professional and volunteers, and the need to train volunteers.

From there, consideration must be given to occupational and safety regulations in your province. In Ontario, for example, most volunteers are not covered by the Workplace Safety & Insurance Act. At the same time, the Ontario government website also states, “Employers still have some responsibility for the health and safety of people visiting or helping out in their workplaces.”

By all means get involved, but check the rules!
Using your skilled team of trades to do good things in your community, from painting a gymnasium to fixing up a church basement with a blend of skilled labor and local volunteers, can bring mixed blessings. On one hand, it’s the right thing to do, but on the other, it cannot go ahead without some forethought and understanding of the legal and regulatory issues.

For a breakdown on provincial labor codes in terms of volunteer or unpaid labor, check out this site.

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3 Comments » for Quebec forced to cut union power over volunteer labor
  1. Fred Kennedy says:

    When I attempted to visit this site:
    For a breakdown on provincial labor codes in terms of volunteer or unpaid labor, check out this site
    I get a 404 – not found

  2. Neil says:

    Hey John,
    Job sites with power tools, heights and mechanized movement have safety elements that need to be respected irregardles of the labour being paid or volunteer so appropriate safety certifications are required.
    Job sites without power tools such as some light surface preparation, water based painting or clean up to name a few might be a good opportunity for positive community activism. In this latter case I think an abbreviated safety orientation would be a sufficient to sensitize everyone involved to the safety of others as well as their own and build a little esprit de corps. It might even lead some of the participants towards the trades later down the road!

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