By Alex McKeen, Vancouver Sun |

Subway sandwich franchise owner Sunny Sanan will be the first to admit that his restaurant, at East 48th and Victoria Dr. in the diverse Victoria Fraserview area, has a high turnover rate.

But not everyone coming and going have been paid employees. Some have been new immigrants making sandwiches without earning a dime.

Beginning six years ago, some South Vancouver-area immigrants have been participating in unpaid “work placements” as part of a program run by the non-profit South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The aim of the program is to connect new immigrants looking for work with Canadian volunteer experience that could boost their resumés. Most of the positions are short-term gigs with non-profits, like the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House itself.

But some of the opportunities offered to immigrants are unpaid jobs at for-profit companies, including Subway “sandwich artists” at Sanan’s store and pharmacy assistants at a Medicine Shoppe franchise on Victoria Dr. and Kingsway.

That’s work that labour lawyers say fits squarely within the protection of the Employment Standards Act. In other words, even if someone volunteers to do the job for free, they’re still entitled to minimum wage and other protections for employees.

A total of 27 people participated in the program between 2016 and 2017, and placements range from 40 hours to 100 or more.

“Anything that is work that would be done by an employee is employment,” said Susanna Quail, a Vancouver labour lawyer. “If someone is at a Subway making sandwiches, you have to pay them to do that.”

Sanan, reached by phone, said he didn’t know about labour law when he got involved in the program. He just knew the program was run by a reputable charity, which is located on the same block as his store. He called it a “good program.”

“It’s really hard to find good people right now,” Sanan said, referring to Vancouver’s tight labour market with an unemployment rate below five per cent. “But they just come to see how the system works — because if they know point-of-sale (cash systems), they can work anywhere.”

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