In A Flash

Are Amateur Athletes Employees? A Surprising Answer from BC

In a recent decision unprecedented in Canadian amateur sports, the BC Labour Relations has ruled that an application by players on Canada’s Senior Men’s Rugby 7s team to unionize may proceed.

Rugby Canada opposed the application pursued by the United Steelworkers, arguing the matter falls under federal jurisdiction, amateur athletes are not “employees” of Rugby Canada, and the group applied for (the Rugby 7s team) was not appropriate for collective bargaining.  The Labour Board rejected these arguments.

Despite previous decisions concluding national sports organizations falls outside the scope of provincial labour boards, the Board determined this was properly a matter within the Board’s jurisdiction.

The Board went on to find the players exchanged their services for remuneration, a fact demonstrative of an employee/employer relationship.  This finding was made notwithstanding the “remuneration” athletes received was:

  • largely in the form of limited funding and reimbursement from a different organization altogether (Sports Canada);
  • in many cases contingent on making the roster for certain tournaments; and
  • relatively small sums ($250-$500 depending on the tournament, with one exception in which players received $5,000).

Finally, the Board conclude that the Canada 7s team represented an “appropriate” employee group for collective bargaining, despite their frequent interaction with other players and national teams.

Should this decision withstand any potential appeal by Rugby Canada and should the players vote in favour of unionization, we expect there will challenging questions ahead.  For instance, labour legislation across the country establishes that employees cannot be dismissed from their employment without “just cause”.  Will Rugby Canada now have to establish “just cause” when it decides to cut players or otherwise selects tournament rosters, and defend such decisions before labour arbitrators?

The impact this decision has on amateur athletics in BC and nationally also remains to be seen.  One potential outcome may be a reluctance to provide athletes with tuition, travel or sponsorship assistance for fear that such payments may be seen as creating an “employee/employer” relationship for purposes of the Labour Relations Code or other employment-related statutes.

More broadly, this case represents further evolution in the expanding scope of labour and employment legislation to pursuits and matters that previously fell clearly outside the scope of such statutes, and a significant expansion of the definitions of “employee” and “employment”.

If you have any questions about this topic or any other questions relating to workplace law, please do not hesitate to contact a Mathews Dinsdale lawyer.

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