Yesterday I wrote about Joe Brown, a CFA volunteer turned seasonal fire fighter, who was grievously injured on the job 9 months ago and has now not only lost the career he’d be aiming toward but is currently homeless.

The impetus of my post was to highlight the growing shift toward insecure work, and why that’s not just a bad thing for workers but also for employers, and for our country. There is, of course, a need for some seasonal and casual work – needs fluctuate, some roles (like shearing) aren’t year-round etc. But increasingly these roles aren’t contracted by mutual agreement but because all the flexibility, and all the power, is the employers’.

I was contacted last night about another aspect of Joe’s case, which I didn’t pick up on, and which is particularly significant to many Australians, particularly as fire fighters in a number of states are combating significant blazes.

We rely heavily on volunteers – in hospitals they greet and direct arrivals, massage patients’ hands, provide a sympathetic ear, and man stalls; in Aged Care facilities they run activities, provide chaplaincy services, assist during outings, and often listen when the employed staff are too busy; in schools they assist teachers and librarians, run cafeterias, and help wrangle students on field trips. Volunteers run our Op Shops, visit the elderly in their homes,  deliver Meals on Wheels, clean up Australia, teach English to migrants, compile care packages for our Armed Forces on deployment, take in and care for lost and injured animals, fund raise – and that’s just off the top of my head.

And, as I type hundreds of Australian volunteers are working, unpaid, for our emergency services – and there are thousands more, on standby, or waiting their turn. They’re manning phones, making roadways safe, removing fallen trees from homes, rescuing people, and they’re fighting fires.

Volunteers do this not only for no salary but often at a cost – not just their time, but transport, training and infrastructure. They provide services that enable the State to function more smoothly, at no cost.

What the anonymous-by-request contact brought to my attention was the fact that volunteers are specifically excluded from most of the anti-discrimination provisions under Victoria’s Equal Opportunities Act. The sole clear exception is sexual harassment, but protection from discrimination based on age, disability and sex/gender identity (the three areas of discrimination most often reported [see p. 8] to Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission), as well as

  • marital status
  • parental or carer status
  • physical features
  • political belief or activity
  • pregnancy or breastfeeding
  • race (including colour, nationality, ethnicity and ethnic origin)
  • religious belief or activity
  • industrial activity
  • personal association with someone who has, or is assumed to have, one of these characteristics

is specifically excluded for volunteers under Section 4 of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010:

(d) a person who is engaged to perform any work the remuneration for which is based wholly or partly on commission and in Part 6 includes, but does not otherwise in this Act include, an unpaid worker or volunteer[emphasis added]

Part 6 is the Section dealing with sexual harassment.

The Issues Paper published by the Commission in May 2011 looks at first glance as though the revised Act (which replaced the Equal Opportunity Act 1995) provides more comprehensive discrimination protection for volunteers. Indeed, after reading through it I communicated to my informant that the pre-existing issue was no longer a problem.

But the Issues Paper employs a number of weasel words, chiefly “may”:
on page 5 – “In Victoria it may be unlawful to discriminate against volunteers…”
on page 6, where “Volunteers who are members of the club or organisation with which they volunteer are protected from discrimination on these grounds…” but “In certain circumstances, volunteers who are not members of the organisation with which they volunteer” only “may also be protected under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 when applying for volunteer roles and while volunteering.”

The section discussing vicarious liability (where employers can be held accountable for sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour of their employees) does include volunteers with employees, interestingly specifying an exemption only “if the organisation or employer can show that they have taken reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment from occurring.”

And on p. 7 we return to “may” – unlike for paid employees, there is no requirement that an employer make reasonable adjustments for disability – though they may if they want to.

What I found most interesting was that, though the Commission found (see p. 10) that

Just under a quarter of the respondents who identified difficulties in volunteering sought help from outside the organisation in which they volunteered to try and [sic] resolve their issues

(principally through peak bodies, local government and state government bodies/websites),  “nearly two-thirds of volunteers who reported seeking assistance for a volunteering-related issue identified that they were unable to resolve it.”

So, though finding that roughly a quarter of Victoria’s volunteer community had problems relating to their volunteering, problems significant enough to seek help for, and though some 66% of them found these avenues inadequate to resolve the problem, the new Act has not put in place any of the legal protections that paid employees have (with the exception of protection from sexual discrimination).

Joe’s case isn’t one of the approximately 16% of those unresolved – he fell victim to the legislative failures to protect insecure workers, instead.

If you’re a volunteer, thank you. And think about this – if Joe, who received life-threatening injuries while protecting Victoria from the threat of fire through contracted controlled burning, and while employed by the State government (through Parks Victoria) wasn’t protected, how protected are you?

I’m indebted to X for bringing this to my attention, and then patiently walking me though a couple of the legislative fine points.