Is it work or volunteering? When do you need a work permit in Canada? - Immigration Lawyer Vancouver, Canada | Sas & Ing Immigration Law Centre

BlogIs it work or volunteering? When do you need a work permit in Canada?

4 July 2023

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As immigration lawyers we are frequently told by clients “I don’t need a work permit – I’m just volunteering!” Understanding what is considered work and what is considered volunteering is vital to ensure that you maintain valid legal status while in Canada. For those in Canada on visitor status, it is important to know what you can and can’t do without a work permit. Providing services without receiving payment does not equal “volunteering” and in most cases will require a work permit.

Work is generally defined as a service that is performed that benefits the Canadian labour market. If you are competing with other Canadians, who would reasonably expect to be paid for their services, you will generally require a work permit. Here are some scenarios for you to consider:

Scenario 1

Max, a Canadian international geology student from Germany, has the opportunity to shadow a renowned Canadian geologist on their fieldwork. Max assists with minor tasks such as taking notes and carrying samples while primarily observing the geologist’s techniques. Max’s activities do not constitute work, and he does not need a work permit.

Scenario 2

Tom, a foreign worker from the UK on an employer-specific work permit, decides to take a summer break on a family farm in Canada. In exchange for room and board, he helps with farm work for a few weeks. Tom’s short-term work is incidental to his main reason for being in Canada (to work) and he does not require a work permit.

Scenario 3

Isabelle, a visitor from France, is offered an unpaid internship at a prestigious television station in Canada. The internship is competitive and offers valuable work experience. Isabelle requires both a Labour Market Impact Assessment and a work permit as her internship experience competes within the Canadian labour market.

As an immigration lawyer, I have seen many cases over the years where people feel that not being paid means that they are volunteering. I can assure you that Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) does not view things that way at all. If everyone else in the office, restaurant or job site is being paid for what they do except for you, then you need a work permit. However, if the organization that you are assisting is a volunteer organization and the others “working” are also volunteering their time and energy, then you don’t need a work permit. It is better to err on the side of caution and verify this.

Working without a work permit is a breach of Canada’s immigration laws and renders you “inadmissible” to Canada and can result with you being issued a removal order and unable to return to Canada for one to two years. Furthermore, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) stipulates that an immigration officer shall not issue a work permit to someone who has worked illegally in Canada for a period of at least six months from when they have departed Canada.

Volunteering is a generous and kind thing to do. However, you need to be certain that the services that you are providing are considered to be a volunteer activity by IRCC. Working without authorization is illegal and can have serious immigration consequences barring you from Canada and making it difficult to return in the future. Better to err on the side of caution and seek advice from a reputable immigration professional.

See this link for further information from IRCC:

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