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Equality and diversity

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The law on equality and diversity.

Does the Equality Act apply to volunteers?

In January 2011, the Court of Appeal confirmed the Equality Act does not apply to volunteers in the same way as employees and ruled volunteers without contracts are not covered by anti-discrimination legislation for workers.

It said that to be protected by anti-discrimination legislation, an individual must have a contract and that a wage is 'highly relevant'. A volunteer agreement does not constitute a contract of employment. The report by ACAS is helpful to understanding the position. 

An Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) statement that a volunteer should be considered by organisations, "as if they are providing you with a service" has yet to be tested in the courts. See page 22 of the EHRC document Your rights to equality from voluntary and community sector organisations (including charities and religion or belief organisations). 

A volunteer who has a contract with an organisation does not have the same protection as a paid employee. See the Knowhow pages on the distinction and Volunteers' Rights guidance from Gov UK

Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 consolidated over 100 pieces of legislation to provide a framework for rights that advance equality of opportunity.

The Act has nine areas known as protected categories.

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Promoting diversity among volunteers

While volunteers may not be protected as employees under the Act, it is not acceptable to discriminate against them.

Organisations benefit significantly from making volunteer opportunities available to a range of people. This provides:

  • more people with the opportunity to develop skills
  • people from different backgrounds, or with access requirements, to work alongside each another to increase mutual understanding and strengthen communities
  • organisations with new perspectives on their work and fresh ideas
  • opportunities for an organisation to gain respect and trust by reflecting the diversity of the community it supports.

In NCVO’s report Time Well Spent (January 2019) on the volunteer experience, diversity is highlighted as an issue that remains inadequately addressed by organisations.

Case studies in the volunteers and your organisation section provide examples of volunteer involving organisations that have involved a range of volunteers such as older people and adults with disabilities. This may help you to think through your approach to good practice from an equality and diversity perspective. 

Further information

Knowhow Equality and Diversity. Legal responsibilities of the board and equality and diversity principles to follow.

Page last edited Dec 17, 2020

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