Volunteers may soon be protected by discrimination laws

Legal, News

Currently all employees and workers in the European Union are entitled to work without being discriminated against in relation to ‘protected characteristics’, under the European Directive on Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation.

These ‘protected characteristics’ include:

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

The UK’s various Equality Laws were bought together to reflect this in the Equality Act 2010.

This Act applies equally to employees, workers and many of those who are self-employed. Only freelancers who fall under Part 5 of the Equality Act 2010 are covered – that is those who are described as ‘contract workers’ and are contracted personally to do the work, i.e you cannot claim discrimination against your client if  you are contracted for the provision of services and hire someone else, or sub-contract someone else, to do the work – you must do the work yourself personally.

Until last month it had not been thought that unpaid or voluntary workers would be covered by the discrimination protections given by the EU’s equality legislation (see more about voluntary workers and volunteers here). However, in a case called X vs Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau heard by the Supreme Court recently, it was argued that volunteers should also enjoy protection against discrimination under European law in certain situations.

Brief details of the case

Mrs X was an unpaid legal adviser working at the Citizens Advice Bureau giving advice on welfare law. She did not have a formal contract with CAB but was engaged under a Volunteer Agreement.  After being diagnosed with HIV Mrs X was dismissed from CAB.

If Mrs X had been an employee she would have been able to bring a claim for compensation on the grounds of disability-related discrimination, as the law protects people from discrimination who are in employment or in an occupation.

Mrs X argued that her work with CAB was an ‘occupation’ even though she was unpaid. However, UK law does not afford protection to unpaid voluntary workers and so Mrs X’s appeal to the Supreme Court (after an Employment Tribunal, Employment Appeal Tribunal and Court of Appeal rejected her arguments), was that the relevant European legislation had not been properly interpreted in the UK.

The Supreme’s Court judgement is still awaited, but it is quite possible that the issue will be referred to the European Court of Justice for a decision.

The decision will have a direct impact on the millions of voluntary workers in the UK, including those on work-experience placements and internships, as well as the Voluntary Sector as a whole in the UK and Europe.

Watch this space for the final decision!

Late December update: The Supreme Court ruled that genuine Volunteers have no legal right to challenge discrimination.  (Volunteers would fall into the employment provisions of the Equality Act where they have a legal contract or are undertaking ‘work experience’ – their work must be formally recognised as employment or vocational training).

Please note that the advice given on this website and by our Advisors is guidance only and cannot be taken as an authoritative or current interpretation of the law. It can also not be seen as specific advice for individual cases. Please also note that there are differences in legislation in Northern Ireland.

Photo by Marja van Bochove