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Employer responsibilities for volunteer workers

Mar 14, 2018

There are some organisations that depend on volunteer workers to survive, such as charities and fundraising bodies.   Employers need to be aware that recruiting volunteer workers comes with certain regulations that must be met.  Sarah Whitemore, Employment Partner, here explains the legal obligations for employers to stay on the right side of the law, and how they can support charitable organisations in doing so.  

Do voluntary workers need an employment contract?

Although voluntary worker will not be given a contract of employment, most voluntary organisations provide them with a ‘Volunteer Agreement’ which is similar to a job description.  This volunteer agreement should set out the following details:

  • the organisation’s insurance cover,
  • their equal opportunities policy,
  • any health and safety issues the volunteer may encounter,
  • training that will be received as a volunteer,
  • confirmation of expenses that will be covered,
  • the level of support and supervision that will be on offer, and
  • how any disputes will be resolved

While a volunteer agreement is not compulsory, they are recommended as they can set the tone for the expectations both the organisation and the volunteer can expect.  It is important to note however that it is not a contract between the organisation and the volunteer in the same way that a contract of employment is legally binding.

What expenses can volunteers be paid?

Volunteers are excluded from the National Minimum Wage requirements, but they can still be paid expenses such as the cost of travel, meals at work, etc. 

There are certain areas that may lead to your volunteers being classed as an employee or a worker.  There have been many Tribunal cases recently due to the wrong classification of employment status, particularly as there are heightened benefits for workers and employees, such as entitlement to National Minimum Wage, holiday pay and sick pay, so it is crucial employers do not cross this line.  Offering the following benefits could mean your volunteers are in fact employees or workers:

  • Offering paid training that is not relevant to their volunteering role
  • Offering expenses such as subsidised or free childcare at times when they are not volunteering
  • Receiving any other type of payment, benefit or reward.

Expenses should normally be supported by receipts or a reasonable estimate.  This could also apply if the organisation has promised them paid work in future.  Volunteers are still eligible to claim benefits in most cases if they are only being paid expenses such as travel.

Are there age restrictions to volunteering?

There is no upper age limit in place to be a volunteer, but children under the age of 14 cannot work on a paid or voluntary basis for a profit-making organisation without special dispensation.  In some cases, insurance companies may have age limits in place which may mean voluntary workers under the age of 16 or over the age of 80 are not covered.

What are your legal responsibilities for volunteers?

There are certain legal responsibilities that you should be aware of if you are a charity or voluntary organisation using volunteers.  Firstly, you have an obligation not to discriminate when determining who to offer paid employment to.  This means that you should not take into account volunteer performance when deciding whether or not to offer a voluntary worker a paid job.

Volunteer workers are covered by government health and safety legislation and you have a responsibility to resolve any health and safety issues.  Employers must also protect personal data and only process data of a sensitive nature with the volunteer’s express consent.  This is an increasingly poignant topic with the upcoming introduction of General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in May 2018; a revolutionary change to data protection regulations.

Employer insurance to cover volunteers

All organisations using volunteers must have professional indemnity cover in place. This will cover you if a volunteer becomes injured and makes a claim, or if a claim is brought against you because of the actions of a voluntary worker.  You should have a specific procedure in place to deal with volunteer grievances or disciplinary issues that may arise.

Bear in mind, too, that even if you only use volunteer workers, you will still need to have compulsory Employer’s Liability Cover by law.  Finally, if your volunteers work with children or vulnerable adults, you may also need to carry out a DBS check to ensure that they are fit to do so.

“For some businesses, recruiting volunteers is the only way they can adequately provide the services they do,” explains Sarah.  “However, as demonstrated here, there are certain points employers need to be aware of.  Having the correct documentation in place is of utmost importance, as this will be how you protect your organisation should any claims be made against you.  Our employment law support package, Peace of Mind, offers a full review of all your documentation at the time of sign up, as well as annually and when any legislation changes are on the horizon; such as GDPR.  We have worked with a number of charities over the years in ensuring they are compliant with employment law, and data protection law, and with the abolishment of Tribunal fees last year it has never been more important to have the correct documentation in place.”

To find out more from Sarah about how Peace of Mind could support your organisation when it comes to employment law, or how the team can advise you on the upcoming data protection changes, you can contact her on 02380 717717 or email


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interepreted as, legal advice.