What are you looking for?

5 December 2018 | Comment | Article by Eleanor Bamber

Volunteer Rights and Responsibilities

What are the issues?

Volunteering in the UK involves individuals giving up their time to assist with a wide range of activities and groups. Data from the UK Civil Society Almanac 2018 highlights that 11.9 million people formally volunteered once a month in 2016/17 across various organisations such as sports clubs and other community groups. Fundraising is cited as one of the most popular volunteering activities along with provision of unpaid advice.

Whilst there is no doubt that volunteering benefits the wider community as well as the volunteer themselves, there are a number of issues that can arise when an individual engages with an organisation in a voluntary capacity, including:

  • What employment rights (if any) do volunteers have?
  • Do volunteers have protection from discrimination?
  • How should organisations recruit and vet volunteers?
  • What are an organisation’s responsibilities towards its volunteers when it comes to issues of data protection and health and safety?
  • What are the implications for employers whose employees volunteer in other organisations?

What is a volunteer?

The first point to note is that there is no one statutory definition of what a “volunteer” is. Generally speaking, a volunteer is understood to be somebody that spends time on an unpaid basis (aside from reimbursement of genuine expenses), doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives. On this basis, a true volunteer will not have the status in law of an employee or worker and will not have the rights associated with such status – for example the right to be paid the national minimum wage, holiday or sick pay or the right not to be unfairly dismissed.

This general principle is not clear cut however and the boundaries can be blurred in situations where a volunteer is perhaps required to perform tasks on a regular basis at regular times by an organisation in return for regular payment. In this situation, there may be sufficient evidence to point to a legally binding contract between the “volunteer” and the organisation which gives the individual the status of that of an employee or worker. Organisations who use volunteers will therefore need to be alive to this possibility and make sure that such contracts are not inadvertently created with their volunteers – avoiding payments (other than genuinely evidenced expenses) as well as ensuring that volunteers are given the ability to refuse tasks will all help with this.

What rights do volunteers have?

Although strictly speaking volunteers will not be covered by the protections from discrimination that are contained in the Equality Act 2010 (in order to benefit from such protections an individual must first establish they have a contract with an organisation), it is certainly best practice for organisations to apply fair recruitment practices in the same way as it would for the recruitment of its employees. When vetting its volunteers, organisations will also need to consider whether the activities that the volunteer will be carrying out constitute a regulated activity in respect of which an enhanced check from the Disclosure and Barring Service may be required.

What duties to organisations have?

An organisation that hosts volunteers is likely to collect and store personal data about its volunteers and will be a data controller for these purposes. It will therefore need to consider its obligations towards its volunteers who will undoubtedly qualify as data subjects under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018). Under the GDPR and DPA 2018, data controllers need to ensure that data subjects are provided with a privacy notice detailing how their data is processed and for what purpose as well as complying with the other obligations in relation to security of data and time limits contained in the legislation.

Equally, organisations will owe common law and statutory duties to protect the health and safety of volunteers who work within their premises and under their direction. It would always be best practice to include volunteers in the general health and safety policy which applies in an organisation and to ensure that there is suitable insurance in place to cover both the risks of harm caused to volunteers as well as harm that may be caused by volunteers in the course of their volunteering activity.

The UK Civil Society Almanac 2018 reports that employer-supported volunteering rates remain relatively low compared to the overall figures for volunteering: 6% of people participated in occasional or one-off voluntary activities encouraged by their employer in 2016/17. There are a number of considerations that an employer may have when encouraging its employees to volunteer including making sure that there is a clear policy and procedure for requesting time off to volunteer, as well as ensuring that any employer supported programmes are properly vetted to ensure the health and safety of participants.

The benefits of volunteering are clear and with some careful planning, there is no reason why this type of activity cannot produce fantastic results for all sorts of organisations and the range of individuals they engage with in this way.

Author bio

Eleanor Bamber

Senior Associate

Throughout her career as an employment law specialist, Eleanor has regularly advised private clients and numerous public sector bodies on a wide range of issues, including conducting large scale redundancies and reorganisations and dealing with the implications of TUPE.

Eleanor also has significant experience in defending multiple equal pay cases in the public sector as well as successfully defending numerous claims for discrimination and unfair dismissal brought by individual employees in the private sector. Eleanor deals with employment tribunal litigation, settlement agreements, pre-termination negotiations, disciplinary and grievance issues and performance and absence management issues.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


Next steps

We’re here to get things moving. Drop a message to one of our experts and we’ll get straight back to you.

Call us: 033 3016 2222

Message us