Law guide: Workplace

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Voluntary work

Voluntary work

Voluntary work

Volunteering is a way to improve your career prospects and put something back into society. You also have rights as a volunteer, but it might affect any benefits you claim.

What is a volunteer?

Volunteering is any activity which involves spending time, unpaid, doing something which aims to help people, good causes, or to improve the environment.

There are a number of reasons why you might volunteer – perhaps because of a sense of public duty or because you're passionate about something and want to improve the situation. Or you might have to do voluntary work as part of a government scheme in return for benefits. Voluntary work could also improve your career prospects.

If you'd like to volunteer, contact your local volunteer development agency for information.

If you are an employee, your employer may already have a volunteering scheme in place.

Minimum age

Many voluntary organisations give children volunteer work, provided they're covered by the organisation's insurance.

However, in order to protect children from being exploited, the law limits what children under school leaving age can do.

In England, you are under school leaving age until the last Friday in June of the school year in which you turn 16. If you are under 14 then you are not allowed to work for a profit-making organisation (this is true whether or not you are paid). You should check with your local authority what limits there are in your area.

In Scotland, you are under school leaving age until the last date in May or the first day of the Christmas holidays / 21st December, depending on when your 16th birthday is. The number of hours per week that any child below the minimum school leaving age can work during term time is 12 hours.

In Northern Ireland you can leave school on the 30th June if you will be 16 on or before 1st July in that year.

The Department for Education has produced a useful guidance booklet on the employment of children. Please note that this booklet applies to employment in England only. The relevant authorities for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland may produce their own guidance in due course.

Your employment rights

Most volunteers don't have a contract of employment and so don't have the rights of an ordinary employee or worker. These include the right to a minimum wage, holiday and sick pay and other statutory rights.

If you volunteer, you're normally told about this in a volunteer agreement. This is usually part of a set of documents, which includes a volunteer policy and voluntary work outlines, like a job description.

The volunteer agreement should explain:

  • What supervision and support you'll get
  • Insurance cover
  • Equal opportunities
  • How disagreements will be resolved

Health and safety

Under health and safety law, an organisation only has to have one paid employee to be an employer. If you're volunteering for an employer, it must assess any risks to your health and safety and take steps to reduce them – just as if you were a paid employee.

If there are different health and safety risks for volunteers than employees, then the protection you're given should reflect this.

Pay, expenses and training

As a volunteer, you'll generally be excluded from the minimum wage and receive only basic expenses for your work. Expenses don't count as wages, as they're repaying you for costs you wouldn't have had if you hadn't been volunteering. Normally expenses will be limited to:

  • Money for travel and food/drink
  • Repaying you for money you have spent (or will be spending) on things you need for your work

If you receive any benefits in kind, they are likely to be limited to what you need while working such as food and drink and, if you are doing work away from home, accommodation. Training for your work may also be provided.

If you receive any other payment or benefit in kind for volunteering, this may mean you are actually classed as an 'employee' or a 'worker'. These categories have a specific meaning and have particular employment rights associated with them.

Examples of benefits that might mean you are classed as a 'worker' include:

  • You receive training that's not directly relevant to your voluntary work
  • You receive a fixed regular amount for 'expenses' that is more than you spend

As a volunteer, you have the same rights under the Data Protection Act as an employee. This means the organisation you're volunteering for must comply with rules on personal data about you held on a computer or in paper files. They can't process any of this data without your permission.

Claiming benefits while volunteering

Volunteering shouldn't affect your right to welfare benefits, as long as you get only basic expenses. The welfare benefits include:

  • Jobseeker's Allowance, provided you can show that you're looking for work and applying for jobs where appropriate
  • Income Support
  • Incapacity Benefit
  • Disability Living Allowance

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