Charity volunteers may soon have the same protection against harassment, discrimination and victimisation that employees have under part five of the Equality Act 2010. This is one of several proposals made in a government consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace.
The proposed new protections would require organisations that use volunteers to take reasonable steps to protect them from sexual harassment and ensure that they are not discriminated against, victimised or harassed in relation to any ‘protected characteristic’ (such as disability, sexual orientation, race and religious belief).
For example, organisations would need formal policies to ensure that there was no discrimination in their volunteer recruitment process, or in their allocation of training and development opportunities to volunteers.
NCVO (The National Council for Voluntary Organisations) believes that extending these protections to all volunteers would create significant difficulties for small charities and voluntary organisations. However, to minimise these difficulties, the Government Equalities Office has proposed that the protections would only apply to some, rather than all, volunteers. One of the options proposed is to restrict the new protections to volunteers in more ‘formal’ roles, so that people who volunteer on a one-off or casual basis would not be protected. Another option is to create an exemption for small organisations and those without any employees, so that they do not have to comply with the proposed new protections.
However, according to NCVO, any attempt to provide additional protections for just some volunteers but not others could devalue volunteers in smaller charities or those giving time in informal ways. It could also create an incentive to avoid the legal issues involved when creating more formal roles.
NCVO is also concerned about blurring the line between volunteering and employment. For example, the proposed changes may mean that volunteers gain the right to take organisations to an employment tribunal, which would create significant costs and difficulties in the voluntary sector. In addition to the new protections for volunteers, the consultation also includes proposals aimed at strengthening existing protections for employees. For example, charities and other organisations with employees would be affected by a proposed new preventative duty. This would make employers liable when employees are harassed by other employees, unless the employer had taken reasonable steps to prevent harassment. There is also a proposal to require employers to protect employees from third party harassment, for example by service users or members of the public.
You can read more about the proposals.