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Volunteers and equal opportunity

Every year, thousands of Victorians support their community by volunteering with a wide range of organisations.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 volunteers and unpaid workers are protected from sexual harassment in the same way as paid staff. The law may also protect volunteers from discrimination in certain circumstances.

Volunteers and sexual harassment

Volunteers have the same rights and responsibilities in regard to sexual harassment as paid workers. This means that:

  • organisations have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment
  • volunteers have the right not to be sexually harassed by their employer, a paid staff member, another volunteer or a client
  • volunteers have an obligation not to sexually harass an employer, a paid staff member, another volunteer or a client
  • an organisation’s sexual harassment policies must cover volunteers as well as paid staff.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, an 'employee' includes a volunteer or unpaid worker and an 'employer' includes a person who employs a person on an unpaid or voluntary basis, but only in relation to sexual harassment.

The law also covers a body corporate or unincorporated association, where the board or committee of management is taken to be the ‘employer’. 

Find out more about sexual harassment in employment.

Examples of sexual harassment

Katie is a volunteer worker with a home care agency. One day when she is visiting John, a client, he starts stroking her arm and telling her how pretty she is. Katie asks him to stop but he pulls her onto his lap and tries to kiss her.

Martin is a voluntary committee member of a youth service. In his role he has access to staff personal information. Martin obtains contact details for Kathy, a staff member, and calls her to ask her out. Kathy refuses but Martin continues to text and email her suggesting she go out with him.

Volunteers and discrimination

Volunteers may be protected from discrimination in certain circumstances. This will depend on where the volunteering is taking place and what the role involves.

Volunteers are more likely to be protected if their club or organisation:

Examples of discrimination in volunteering

While volunteering at a function at their bowls club two club members, May and Xiu speak in their first language, Mandarin. The club secretary tells them they should be speaking English as it is an Australian club and if they didn’t want to speak English, they shouldn’t volunteer anymore.

James volunteers as a coach for his son’s soccer team. When the parents of another team member find out that James is in a same-sex relationship they contact the club and insist he no longer coach the team, as they believe he is not an appropriate role model. The club president tells James that, while the club is sorry to lose him, it has no choice but to dismiss him as the coach.

Disability and volunteering

Under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, an organisation may be required to make reasonable adjustments for a volunteer with a disability in certain circumstances. This will depend on where the person is volunteering and what they are doing.

Reasonable adjustments for people with disability could include things like:

  • adjusting the requirements of a role
  • providing a hearing loop at training events
  • installing a ramp to allow access to a building.

Making reasonable adjustments involves the organisation balancing the need for the change with the expense or effort involved in making the change. What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances.

Resources for volunteers and organisations

The Commission has produced a series of fact sheets about how the law applies to volunteers and organisations that work with volunteers:

Download information for organisations: Volunteers and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 - Information for organisations.

Download information for volunteers: Volunteers and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 - Know your rights.

Make a complaint to the Commission

If you think you have been discriminated againstsexually harassedvictimised or vilified, contact us and talk about your concerns. Our dispute resolution service is free and confidential. We can send you information about the complaint process and if we can’t help you we will try to refer you to someone who can.

To make a complaint:

Find out more about making a complaint.