Opinion: Hot issue - Should volunteers be entitled to the same rights as employees?

The RNLI and the Scout Association are currently facing lawsuits from four of their volunteers claiming unfair dismissal, raising concerns about the relationship between the charities and their unpaid workers in future.


Amicus believes, however, that volunteers should have 'volunteer rights'.

Volunteers are not employees, but their distinct relationship with their organisation should be recognised. Changes to this dynamic would alter the very nature of what it means to be a volunteer, and could be detrimental to the sector.

Amicus has many volunteers in membership and has created a charter for the volunteer about managing expectations. They should not experience discrimination in any area; should be treated with full dignity, free from bullying, harassment, violence or abuse; should be subject to the same rights and responsibilities as outlined in health and safety legislation; and should be afforded appropriate training for their role and provided with development opportunities to gather experience and qualifications in line with the Government's skills strategy. Expectations of conduct between the organisation and volunteer should be clearly outlined from day one of engagement.

Organisations should have a thorough complaints procedure for dealing with grievances from the volunteer, and a process for dealing with conduct issues of the volunteer, which should include investigation and appeal stages.


This is a difficult question, and I'm afraid there isn't an easy answer.

However, I do believe that volunteers definitely should have the same rights as employees in terms of things like health and safety at work.

Obviously, the fact that volunteers have no legal rights and that volunteering has no legal definition creates an ambiguity that can often be problematic.

What I can say is that organisations will always have a duty of care towards their volunteers and that volunteers must always be treated with the same regard as employees.

The problems that some organisations have with this issue only occur when the relationship between the organisation and the volunteer breaks down. What we try to do is to help organisations ensure that the relationship runs smoothly. This can be done by ensuring that the most appropriate policies and procedures are in place and that the role of the volunteer and the expectations attached to it are clearly understood by everyone.

We have to remember that volunteering should always be a 'gift' relationship, but also a reciprocal one where the volunteer, the organisation and the organisation's clients all benefit.


Volunteers don't have employment contracts. Under employment legislation, different groups are entitled to various different rights and protections.

Employees have the rights to redundancy payments, family leave and pay and protection from unfair dismissal. Workers have the rights to the minimum wage, working time limits, annual leave and holiday pay. People in employment are protected from discrimination on grounds of sex, race, disability, religion, belief and sexual orientation.

The common ground shared by all of these groups is that there is a contract between them and the employer. They have entered a binding obligation to work in return for being paid, and the employer has a legal remedy against them if they refuse to work. The legal rights and protections prevent the employer from abusing the relationship.

Unpaid volunteers are not subject to the same legal obligations. They provide their services voluntarily, without any reward other than the satisfaction of serving their community. Volunteer work involves a massive personal commitment, but that is not the same as contracting to work.

As a result, volunteers can withhold their services with impunity: any further legal rights and protections are unnecessary.


Volunteering at all levels - from the commitment of trustees to students or retired people giving up a couple of hours a week - is central to the functioning of the charitable sector as well as its ethos. The drive for professionalism should not allow us to lose what is distinctive and valuable about the third sector.

We sometimes hear that it is difficult to attract volunteers for certain activities, particularly trustee roles. I do not think payment is the answer. The real challenge is to find new and imaginative ways to reach people and generate interest and enthusiasm, perhaps emphasising what (apart from money) is in it for them.

As an employment lawyer, I often advise charities on relations with volunteers who have shown themselves increasingly willing to challenge their legal status in recent years. A useful Employment Appeal Tribunal decision last year enforced the distinction between paid staff working under enforceable contracts and volunteers who give their time freely and without reward, and this line must be held by the courts to avoid a further proliferation of claims, which, even with slight prospects of success, are very costly for charities to defend.

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