Charities should stop accepting ‘workfare’ placements, in which unemployed people are required to work without pay or lose their benefits, according to a campaign launched last week by the pressure group Boycott Workfare.
Joanna Long, a spokeswoman for the organisations, said many charities withdrew from what she called the "compulsory volunteering" schemes in February, but several large national charities still used unpaid staff in their charity shops through these schemes.
Six different government schemes involve unpaid work placements, some of which are compulsory, such as the Department for Work and Pensions' Mandatory Work Activity programme. Boycott Workfare claims that tens of thousands of placements involve large national charities.
Long said the campaign was particularly concerned about the disability charity Scope, which had suspended its involvement with the initiatives in February but had started again, and the British Heart Foundation, which said that about 660 of the charity’s 15,000 volunteers were from mandatory work programmes.
"It’s been a real focus for us to encourage charities not to take part in this scheme," said Long. "I can imagine that this is quite an easy way to staff your charity shops. But charities should have a really big stake in defending volunteering. This is changing volunteering by making it not voluntary."
Andrew Adair, director of retail at Scope, said he was "extremely disappointed" to see that people were protesting against his organisation’s use of volunteers.
He said a "robust placement agreement" ensured no one was "forced or coerced" into volunteering with Scope, and that both the individual and the charity benefited.
"We believe that the chance to volunteer in our charity shops offers an opportunity for people to learn retail and customer service skills, build confidence and establish working routines," he said.
Mike Taylor, retail director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "All volunteers, no matter how they come to the BHF, are interviewed by managers before they start work with BHF to ensure they are happy and that they would gain from the work experience with us," he said. "In some cases, work programme volunteers go on to join our full-time paid workforce or stay on as permanent volunteers."