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Executive Summaries Aug 12, 2021

A Victory for Students at ABI: How this Judgment May Affect Your Business

This case concerning equal pay for equal work had been the subject of a challenge in court for several years. Following the Quebec Court of Appeal’s decision rendered on June 16, 2021, Aluminerie de Bécancour  Inc. (“ABI”) will have to pay students hired for the summer and during the holiday season the same salary as its regular employees. Ruling in favour of ABI’s students, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the first judgment and rejected the appeal lodged by ABI.

Review of the Facts

On May 11, 2018, the Human Rights Tribunal upheld a claim for damages brought by the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse and ordered ABI to pay damages, including moral damages, to its student employees.

The complaint filed by the United Steelworkers Local 9700 was to the effect that the students were the lowest paid employees at ABI by reason of their age and social condition, although they completed the same work as employees who received higher compensation.

ABI argued, namely, that:

  • student employees did not perform work equivalent to that of regular employees;
  • the different salary was motivated by the "length of service" which it equates to a "fixed-term contract"; and
  • the distinction was not based on one of the grounds of discrimination listed in section 10 of the Quebec Charter.

In 2018, the Tribunal rejected these arguments and decided that the distinction was indeed based on the students’ social condition or their age. The Tribunal found that this distinction undermined the right of students to receive equal pay for equal work.

The Quebec Court of Appeal did not find a manifest and decisive error in the Tribunal’s decision. The Court considered, among other things, that the status of a student employee is indeed a social condition given that students are victims of certain stereotypes. Moreover, the uncontradicted evidence established that, when performing the same task, all employees receive the same training, put in the same effort, assume the same responsibilities and work under the same conditions.

Furthermore, the Court did not maintain ABI’s argument to the effect that the student employees are bound by fixed term employment agreements, which would allow the difference as per the exception based on “length of service” provided in section 19 of the Quebec Charter, set out as follows:

“19. Every employer must, without discrimination, grant equal salary or wages to the members of his personnel who perform equivalent work at the same place. A difference in salary or wages based on experience, seniority, years of service, merit, productivity or overtime is not considered discriminatory if such criteria are common to all members of the personnel. Adjustments in compensation and a pay equity plan are deemed not to discriminate on the basis of gender if they are established in accordance with the Pay Equity Act (chapter E-12.001).”

On the contrary, after analyzing the evidence, the Court of Appeal concluded that the difference in treatment at issue was not based on the experience, seniority or length of service of ABI’s employees, as regular employees are paid more than students as of their first day of employment and the salary scales have a single rate, regardless of length of service.

The Court concluded that the discrimination to which the students were subjected constituted an attack to their dignity, justifying damages of $1,000 each for the moral prejudice suffered.

What Employers Should Learn from this Decision?

Notwithstanding the importance of this decision, there is a false belief that it will affect all businesses in Quebec. Paragraph 81 of the decision sets out how it will undoubtedly impact several companies, but certainly not all:

“[81] Student jobs will not soon disappear for this reason, because, in the majority of cases, the salary difference will be justified by considerations provided for in section 19 of the Quebec Charter. To a certain extent, the rigor with which the appellant trains and assigns all of its employees, whether they are regular, occasional or student employees, due to the very particular (and truly dangerous) nature of the tasks and the work environment, entails this obligation to pay them the same salary. The appellant has, in fact, established no reason to pay less for students who do the same work as their colleagues. This will not necessarily be the case for the majority of student jobs in Quebec. Consequently, these reasons are likely to have an impact circumscribed by circumstances which may of course be found in other companies, but which are not universal.” [Our translation]

In light of the above, we observe that the Court expressly mentions that its decision was based on particular circumstances and that it does not necessarily imply that all student employees in Quebec must be paid the same as other employees performing the same tasks. Although ABI failed to prove that they were legally justified in paying their students less, the Court leaves the door open for other companies to do so.

Contrary to popular belief, this decision can also be interpreted as unfavourable to students, as employers may become reluctant to hire them or may develop a tendency to have higher expectations with regard to their performance given the possibility of equal pay.

As for unionized businesses, this decision may inevitably impact certain provisions contained in collective agreements, namely those which provide different wages for students.

If you are an employer that hires students or plans to hire them, contact our labour and employment team for more information.

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