In the UK, does an employer need to perform a right to work check on volunteers?

Every year, NHS doctors and nurses volunteer to assist. I believe it is volunteering, not voluntary work (they don't get paid or have obligations) most of these professionals do about 3 days a year. Sometimes they get paid expenses (e.g. on-site parking charge) but most don't.

Can anyone point me to the location where I can see this or relevant section of the law? The employer right-to-work check guide and volunteering page on gov.uk seems to be missing this information.


  • 1
    The law is the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, but it does not seem to define "employment" nor mention volunteering.
    – phoog
    May 1, 2018 at 16:55
  • So does that mean its fine? Or is that a question for an employment lawyer? I found a page by Oxford university saying no check is required, but it doesn't cite a source
    – David
    May 1, 2018 at 17:01
  • It means that the question of whether the activities are covered by the act is not explicitly addressed in the act itself. (If they fall under the definition of "employment" for the purpose of the act, they're covered.) The UK government may or may not have asserted that volunteering is covered, and a court may or may not have ruled that it is. If nobody who knows comes here to post an answer, your best bet will probably be to ask a lawyer.
    – phoog
    May 1, 2018 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


It's complicated! The people who you refer to as volunteers may legally be classed as unpaid workers or employees.

For instance, it used to be believed that asylum seekers were not allowed to volunteer, but recent updates to the guidance now encourage voluntary work (Permission to work and volunteering for asylum seekers).

Asylum seekers are encouraged to volunteer whilst their claim is being considered. Volunteering involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives.

The guidance is that you must be careful it is genuine volunteering, not just 'working for free' (because the loophole here is that you 'volunteer' at a friends' restaurant, and they pay you in kind.

...volunteering must not amount to unpaid work, or job substitution. In particular:

there should be no payment, other than reasonable travel and meals expenditure actually incurred (not an allowance for the same) 

there should be no contractual obligations on the volunteer and they should not enjoy any contractual entitlement to any work or benefits 

the volunteer is helping a registered voluntary or charitable organisation, an organisation that raises funds for either of these, or a public sector organisation 

volunteering is not a substitute for employment, that is fulfilling a role that a salaried worker would normally fulfil

So, it is very context dependent, and your example may fall down on your last point. The linked document refers specifically to asylum seekers, but as a class of people who are not otherwise entitled to work in the UK I think it's a good place to start; as they say;

Organisations need to be clear about the legal status of volunteering roles they create before they recruit people to such roles. The guidance above is to help organisations understand the distinctions. However, if in doubt about whether a specific opportunity constitutes engagement as an employee or worker or volunteering, organisations should seek independent legal advice before taking on volunteers who are asylum seekers and who do not have permission to work.

  • Thanks. In my example, it's not something that would be considered a normally salaried role, I think (its a twice a year event for a couple days). But ill check. Its nice to know their thinking, but I wish they would be clear on the Law for non-asylum seekers!
    – David
    May 3, 2018 at 6:59
  • @David well, I think it's transferable, as the basic rule is that they're not allowed to work; and this helps define 'work'... one hopes the definition of employment is the same for all categories of workers.. I'm sure it isn't though!
    – JeffUK
    May 3, 2018 at 8:18

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