Several years on from the birth of the #metoo movement in the wake of the scandals that ricocheted through the worlds of entertainment and some major charities, the Government is consulting on the extent of its response. 

In response to the Women and Equalities Select Committee Report back in July 2018 on sexual harassment in the workplace, the Government is looking at a number of initiatives.  One of these is a consultation on whether to introduce new protections to protect interns and volunteers.

As the law currently stands, volunteers and interns are not protected under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) from discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of one of the nine protected characteristics; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. 

Should a volunteer or intern suffer any sexual harassment at the organisation where they are volunteering, their only remedy in law is via the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.  Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, a volunteer would have to demonstrate that there had been a “course of conduct” i.e. repeated harassing behaviour.  Under the EqA 2010 however, a one-off incident, provided it is serious enough, is sufficient to demonstrate sexual harassment.    

Whilst it is unlikely that most people would disagree with the proposal to protect volunteers, a move to change the status quo throws up some key issues: 

  • It could potentially blur the lines between volunteers and paid staff.
  • Volunteers would need recourse to the employment tribunal so will need some sort of paperwork documenting their volunteering.
  • Volunteers who previously enjoyed a high level of flexibility might find such paperwork and commitment unwelcome.
  • The Government has suggested a two-tier system so that the legislation only extends to certain volunteers in major charities – this could create an unwelcome division.

How can we help?

Volunteers are often a huge asset to an organisation, but it is key to understand the key differences between volunteers and workers/employees in terms of rights, responsibilities, benefits and burdens. The employment and pensions team at Anthony Collins Solicitors has produced:

  • A Volunteer Toolkit that helps address these issues with practical guidance and information; and
  • Volunteer Agreements that help with more permanent, often long-term volunteers to provide clarity on the relationship.

If you would like more information on these products, please contact Anna Dabek.

Further information

This is a key area for employers, so if you would like any further information or advice please contact Anna Dabek.