Minimum wage rules for volunteers maintained

The Government has decided not to change the application of minimum wage rules to voluntary workers, despite complaints from charities that the law could prevent them offering incentives to volunteers.

Under current law, volunteers who receive benefits – such as allowances or training that does not relate directly to their voluntary work – could argue that they are entitled to the minimum wage.

A Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform consultation document published earlier this year suggested that youth volunteering charities v and ProjectScotland could be exempted. However, some charities, including WRVS, complained that this might disadvantage older volunteers and emphasised the need for a level playing field (Third Sector, 22 August).

After analysing the consultation results, the DBERR has decided that the current law is sufficiently clear and extra sections would “risk making it more, not less, problematic to resolve any disputes that might arise about employment status”.

Its response reads: “Training provision beyond the needs of the volunteering opportunity, or reimbursement of childcare expenses, represent a significant benefit in kind and as such would change the nature of the relationship between voluntary worker and qualifying organisation.”

Youth projects could be exempted

However, it said that the department would produce updated guidelines next year, and added that the department was still open to the possibility of an exemption for projects relating to the national framework for youth volunteering.

The exemption would allow charities to offer inducements to under-25s to volunteer full time without opening up the possibility that such voluntary workers could claim to be entitled to the minimum wage.

It said there “may be a good case” for an exemption for full-time volunteering placements arising from the Russell Commission report, provided that it was “carefully drawn to avoid the scope for exploitation or substitution of workers for volunteers”. It says the Office of the Third Sector and related devolved administrations would continue to develop recommendations.

Terry Ryall, chief executive of v, welcomed the implication that the exemption would apply to all organisations contributing towards the Russell Commission objectives on youth volunteering.

“V is happy to see that the Government is developing an inclusive approach to any future exemption from the national minimum wage that would judge opportunities for volunteers by their content, rather than by their source of funding,” she said.

Other concerns

A spokeswoman for charity lawyers Bates Wells & Braithwaite, which was also among the 40 contributors to the consultation, said the Government had missed an opportunity to address a number of other points of practical concern about voluntary workers.

She said another example was the wording of the law that permits charities to provide accommodation to voluntary workers but forbids them from providing money to arrange their own accommodation.

“I hope the new guidelines will clarify and how widely ‘out-of-pocket expenses’ can be defined, and whether a charity can provide both subsistence and accommodation to voluntary workers,” she said.

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