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Employer responsibilities for volunteer workers

View profile for Sarah Whitemore
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There are some organisations that depend on volunteer workers to survive, such as charities and fundraising bodies.   Employers need to be aware that there are certain regulations that must be met when utilising volunteer workers.   Sarah Whitemore, Employment Partner, here explains what employers need to do 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 to set the expectations between the organisation and the volunteer.  It is important to note however that it is not a legally binding contract between the organisation and the volunteer; unlike a contract of employment.  

What expenses can volunteers be paid?

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

There are certain benefits that, if offered to volunteers, may lead to them being classed as employees or workers.  There have been many Tribunal cases recently testing employment status, largely because 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 any of the following benefits could mean your volunteers are legally 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
  • Providing any type of payment, benefit or reward other than reasonable reimbursement of relevant expenses.  The promise of future paid work may be classed as a benefit or reward.

Expenses should normally be supported by receipts or be a reasonable estimate of actual cost. 

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?

You have an obligation not to discriminate when determining to whom to offer paid employment.  There are nine protected characteristics that, if used as a basis to refuse an individual employment, could lead to a discrimination claim against you.  Those protected characteristics are age, race, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief and gender reassignment.  Volunteers have the same rights as employees regarding raising grievances and if you choose to take them through disciplinary proceedings, so you should have a specific policies in place to deal with these procedures.

Volunteer workers are covered by government health and safety legislation in the same way your employees are.  Employers must also protect personal data and ensure the correct General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) policies are in place.  Whilst employees and volunteer workers do not need to give consent for their employer to process their data, as employers have a “legitimate interest” in doing so, they do need to be given a notice as to what data is processed and how.

Employer insurance to cover volunteers

Even if you only use volunteer workers, you will still need to have public liability insurance and Employer’s Liability Cover.  Volunteers either need to be referred to specifically within these, or if the term “employee” only is used, the policy must state that “employee” means other forms of employment status such as workers and volunteers.

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 abolition 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 023 8071 7717 or email


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.