Volunteers could gain the right to take charities to employment tribunals under new government plans for tackling sexual harassment.
The government is consulting on a range of proposals for protecting people from workplace harassment, including extending equality legislation so that it covers volunteers as well as paid staff.
The change would for the first time allow volunteers and interns to bring claims of discrimination or harassment against charities.
The consultation paper says: "It is particularly important to get protection right for these groups, as the power dynamics often involved in sexual harassment mean that they can be particularly vulnerable in the workplace."
The paper does not clarify how such claims would be resolved but notes that the "main way" of addressing harassment cases is through the employment tribunal or county courts.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations warned that the proposed change would represent a "huge shift" for charities.
Shaun Delaney, volunteering development manager at the NCVO, says today in a blog that draws attention to the consultation: "Volunteers should certainly receive the same level and quality of protection as paid staff.
"However, bringing them into the scope of this law is potentially a huge shift for the organisations that involve more than 20 million volunteers in their work in the UK.
"The consultation mentions ‘potential legal action’. For paid workforces, enforcement usually happens in employment tribunals. This naturally comes with a raft of further employment-based processes.
"While it is important that volunteers can give their time free from harassment, we are concerned about the risk of changing the nature of volunteering to that of employment."
Another proposal under consideration would create two separate legal categories of volunteering, under which volunteers at the largest organisations or working in more formal roles would be covered by the law but other volunteers would not.
NCVO calls this "a confusing distinction" and suggests that it could devalue volunteers and their work at smaller charities as well as creating "an incentive to avoid the legal issues of creating more formal roles".
In an impact assessment published alongside the consultation, the government forecasts that the proposals could result in between 22 and 38 additional harassment cases being brought by charity volunteers every year, at a public cost of about £700,000.
Other proposals under consultation include requiring employers to protect staff and volunteers from harassment at the hands of customers and clients, requiring employers to take proactive action to protect staff before any sexual harassment claims are brought and extending the three-month time limit for staff bringing employment tribunal claims over harassment.
The government consultation closes on 2 October.