Is now the right time to address volunteer rights issues?

As some readers will know, I used to work for Volunteering
where, among other things, I led the secretariat for the Volunteer
Rights Inquiry

The inquiry’s call
to action was published in March this year and so far more than 70
organisations have signed up to the 3R promise.

The call to action progress group tasked with taking forward
the work of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry met for the first time on 17th June,
but I wonder if now is the right time to take forward the issues raised in
their call to action?

The essence of the inquiry’s work was
that it shouldn’t be so easy for volunteers to be dismissed, that they perhaps
needed better protection and that they certainly need better treatment by
volunteer involving organisations.

Then in May this year, The Independent ran an article
reporting on proposals by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to reduce the rights
of employees in the workplace. The
article reports that Osborne plans to “tear up sections of employment law so
businesses can dispose of their staff more easily”. 

Just a quick glance at the comments people have left in
response to the article demonstrates the strength of feeling many people have
in response to the story.

It is this juxtaposition of government policy and Volunteer
Rights Inquiry recommendations that gives rise to my anxieties about whether it
is the right time to go forward with the call to action.

If the inquiry’s ideas are pursued now and the issues of
fair treatment of volunteers gains a much higher profile (however deserved that
is) then there is a danger that they could get associated with this politically
sensitive debate about employment rights in a society where jobs are being lost
daily. This could be very damaging
to volunteering, especially at a time of heightened anxiety about job
displacement issues. 

In such a context, despite the importance of the issues the
Volunteer Rights Inquiry highlighted, I do wonder if pursuing some of them –
like a complaints commissioner for volunteering or even legislation to protect
volunteer rights –   might do more harm thand good to the image of volunteering in the current

What do you think? Should we be holding off pursuing the important issue raised
by the Volunteer Rights Inquiry because of wider debates and concerns about
employment rights and job displacement? 

Or is now precisely the time to address volunteer rights issues?

Rob Jackson is director of
Rob Jackson Consulting 

10 Responses to “Is now the right time to address volunteer rights issues?”

  1. Lewis Smith

    Whatever one thinks of the Employment Acts and current procedures associated with them, the fact still remains that if you work for pay certain rights are legally protected, but if you work for no pay, they are not. This anomaly won’t disappear of its own accord.
    Two questions therefore of Rob from a member of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry: What is this “image of volunteering” which can be disturbed by doing something about the rights issue now? And if not now, when would be the right time to help volunteers have some protection for their rights?

  2. Margaret Haigh

    I would like to make 2 points.
    1) My understanding is that the Call to Action Progess Group has been set up to monitor and promote the good practice recommmendations as outlined in the 3r’s promise and to continue to assess the need for a volunteer complaints commissioner. The committee will report back in 2 years time, so there are no immediate financial implications.
    2) Yes sadly paid jobs are being lost. My own CAB lost 3 paid members of staff last week as funding ceased to be available for their projects, and there are more job losses to come.
    At a time when client numbers are ever increasing, who will be attenpting to take up the slack? VOLUNTEERS.
    As there are also ever increasing calls from government for volunteers to play their part in ” The Big Society ” I would say that this is exactly the time we should be looking at establishing rights and proctection for volunteers.

  3. Frank Branney

    This is not a time to be faint-hearted about rights for volunteers, whatever changes may be proposed to employment law. The proposals of the VRI were extremely modest in my view but should not be left to wither. 70 organisations only from the whole sector signed up to follow good practice is not nearly progress enough. The Mid-Sussex CAB case, referred to by Kevin Kelleher, is a sad example of the inadequacy of current protection.

  4. Rob Jackson

    I am pleased this post has created a reaction as that is exactly what I was aiming for.

    The last three months have been frustrating with no visible action on the VRI and nothing discernible happening to keep the hard and valuable work of the Inquiry on the agenda. So my post was to ensure that in the absence of any other voice, this important work stayed on people’s radars.

    Kevin – thanks for your additional links. The court case to which you refer has effectively maintained the status quo, that is that volunteers effectively have no employment rights in law unless they are not actually volunteers but workers or employees. Should the government strip away employee rights then if volunteers are seen as employees they will have fewer rights than they would do now.

    The image issue to which Lewis refers is that volunteering, in my view, enjoys a generally supportive position from most people in the country and certainly from our media who, sadly, influence so much of what people think and believe. Many of these people are suspicious of Big Society as a way to cut services and have them done cheaply/free by volunteers. My concern would be that if a rise in volunteering were accompanied by increased rights for volunteers at the same time as employee rights were stripped away, then volunteering could lose its support from the public and media.

    As Lewis knows I am committed to this issue being taken more seriously by volunteer involving organisations and volunteer managers. I hope it stays high on the agenda. But we do have to be careful that we push the right things at the right times so we keep people with us as we move to a position where volunteers are rightly accorded more respect and fair treatment for the invaluable work that they do.

  5. carl allen

    The courts and case law already indicate the implications when “volunteers” deliver statutory public sector services?

    Implication for organisations, beneficiaries, volunteers and the judicial service.

  6. william dixon smith

    I notice an absence of local authorities amongst those organisations signing up to the 3R Promise.
    This document might be more convincing set out as a binding contract.

    Recruiting agencies, such as the CVS featured on the Volunteering England list, would be more credible if they declined to deal with any organisation employing volunteers which did not itself subscribe to the 3R Promise. They should certainly not accept funding from such an organisation.

    The most important recommendation is that there should be an independent tribunal to hear appeals. These might be provided now by a local CVS or even Volunteering England, if this organisation is serious in its commitment to volunteers rather than volunteerism.

    As regards local authorities, it should not be forgotten that the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman specifically excludes complaints from volunteers.

  7. T T

    I agree that charity calendars may often be quite bland, having unfit average joe models taken by a poor photographer in shady lighting.

    Still, modeling for charity calendars is for a good cause after all, and if carried out whole-heartedly and a bit more professionally there’s much to gain. I’m doing charity model shoots myself, and it’s more like real world modeling in both ends. There’s a more traditional fitness requirement (somewhat muscular, toned/ripped and chiseled abs, nice skin tone etc.), the photos are shot by a professional woman in proper lighting conditions. Effort is also put in to post-work with photoshopping and making the models “glow”.

    While my organizer has occasionally been criticized for for using “overly clad” models, her position is that you should be able to make requirements and expect quality even for volunteer models. And the results speak for themselves, raising more than three times the amount than before the male volunteer model calendar was professionalised.


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