The Equality Act 2010 (Equality Act) aims to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all (see our blog from September 2012 for more information on the Equality Act). However, there is often some doubt as to whether the legislation applies to volunteers in the same way that it applies to employees. This was highlighted by a recent case (October to December 2012) of a volunteer who was asked to cease her work after a period of ill health that caused her to be absent for 25-30% of her agreed working time. The outcome was that volunteers are not protected against disability discrimination under the European employment framework directive (2000/78/EC) and the employment provisions of the Equality Act cannot be extended to voluntary work.
With regards to protection for volunteers (i.e. people who work free of charge or on a goodwill basis) under the Equality Act, the Court of Appeal ruled in January 2011 that volunteers without contracts are not covered by anti-discrimination legislation for workers. If the volunteer has a contract, which would create some form of binding agreement and may outline certain benefits (e.g. training, the receipt of some money beyond the reimbursement of expenses) he/she may be protected, but not to the same extent as paid staff.
Before the Equality Act came into force, volunteers were not protected against discrimination or unfair dismissal at all. Now, although volunteers are not specifically mentioned in the Equality Act, they are afforded some form of protection through being viewed as users of the ‘service’ offered by the organisation they volunteer in.
Responsible organisations will want to protect anyone working with them, whether paid or unpaid, from discrimination and unfair treatment, and many organisations that benefit from the services of volunteers already treat them more favourably than the law requires.