Volunteers have no legal status and no rights. Why?

20 Mar 2013 @ 10.13 am
| Opinion

Volunteer snow wardens training at York's gritting centre earlier this year. Photograph: City of York Council
Volunteer snow wardens training at York’s gritting centre earlier this year. Photograph: City of York Council
People do voluntary work to gain experience or to help a project they support. But if things go wrong, volunteers have no legal protection, and that must change, argues William Dixon Smith

If you’re looking for paid work these days you’ve got a problem; even if you are prepared to work for a pittance. Volunteer to work for nothing, and the world‘s your oyster-bed.

Pick up any newspaper. As the demand for paid workers has shrunk to a few paragraphs, so the demand for volunteers (unpaid workers) has spread and blossomed.

Naturally, people who are willing to work for nothing are welcomed by employers everywhere. No trades unions to bother about, no carping about unfair contracts, no tribunals to uphold complaints about unfair dismissal. In short, no disputes over volunteers’ rights: they haven’t any.

It could be argued that they don’t need any. After all, volunteers can walk away if they are dissatisfied. Well they can: if they are not committed to serve in their chosen capacity, if they are not involved emotionally and intellectually in their work, and if they put no value on their contribution. Yet, however committed, however involved, however valuable their contribution, there is a yawning gulf between those who are paid to work and those who are not.

Volunteers, unlike the rest of society, have no legal status. Volunteers are outside the protection of the law. This is unjust

The reason for this is the prestige attached to earning power. The relationship between what is paid and what if done is so ingrained in our modern thinking that we tend to act as though they were interchangeable ideas. We forget that this was not always so.

Once, pay was for the lower orders and salary was for professionals: those who could not aspire to be gentlemen. Gentlemen served. It was their duty. It was not until 1911 that MPs were accorded “an allowance”. The idea of a salary, indicating professional status, was firmly rejected. Britain, at that time, as for centuries, was run by volunteers.

volunteers-posterIn those days volunteers needed no law to protect them. They were the law. Today, there exist government sponsored organisations claiming to represent volunteers, such as Volunteer England and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. They certainly represent volunteer recruiters.

But how is it possible to serve both the recruiter and the recruited? They beguile prospective volunteers with the advantages of volunteering (ie you will meet people and feel good about yourself). At the same time they instruct recruiters how to draft contracts to ensure that volunteers sign away any residual rights they may have, and one day might need.

Such a contract would be judged unfair in law, but volunteers, unlike the rest of society, have no legal status. Volunteers are outside the protection of the law. They do not even have the right to apply to the Ombudsman for redress. All this is unjust.

Doubtless, most recruiting organisations value and respect their volunteers; but not all. There will always be the rogue exception. Is it right that in such cases volunteers should be excluded from the protection of the law?