Where does volunteering end and slavery begin?

Thursday May 25, 2017

What’s the distinction between volunteering and modern day slavery? The line is unhelpfully blurry, at the expense of both organisations and the volunteers that they depend on. Are volunteer dependent charities walking a tightrope when taking them on? And where does work experience fit in?


If you’re an employer that depends on volunteers, understanding the difference between employment and volunteering is key. This is where most organisations that get it wrong fall down.

Volunteering isn’t simply an excuse to avoid paying somebody for the work that they do (some have tried this!). If there’s an employment contract in place, an exchange of value or an obligation to provide them with work, then they’re an employee entitled to all the rights that come with that. If somebody fulfils any one of those criteria, and they’re working unpaid, that’s modern day slavery.

In a tribunal, the court can decide whether a volunteer is indeed an employee based on those key distinctions. In one case, a volunteer given flat rate expense payments regardless of whether they were incurred was, from that point, deemed to be an employee. Therefore they were able to successfully make a discrimination claim.

The key then, for an organisation to successfully manage their volunteers is to ensure that they don’t enter a contract situation! Although volunteers will need documentation and a structure to adhere to (if, for example, they have a complaint to make) look at the language you are using. Could it indicate employment?

Swap the word ‘contract’ for ‘volunteer agreement’. Likewise with ‘volunteer role’ and ‘job description’.

Volunteers are completely different in their motivations! They’re working for the organisation because they believe in its aim and wish to contribute. They might also be there to gain experience and skills, or even just for the socials. Documentation must be in line with the informality of volunteering as appropriate.

Unpaid work experience must mirror this process. Unpaid internships are now thankfully much less common than they were, as the job market has picked back up. No business should look to exploit a person’s eagerness to get their feet on the career ladder! If they’re entitled to a contract, they’re entitled to employment rights, including the Statutory Minimum Wage.

If you’re a third sector organisation unsure as to whether you’re managing your volunteers correctly, we’re here to support you and keep you safe! So please do get in touch.

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