Voluntary work is work done of one’s own free will that a person is prepared to perform without remuneration. In practice, voluntary work has now replaced works performed for remuneration under a contract, instead of being an addition to it. So-called volunteers are now hired, who perform the work but do not get paid for it. According to volunteers, they have been employed to have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the work and to present themselves as future employees.
A similar situation existed a while ago when trial days were widely used. Back then, employers argued that a trial day is beneficial for both the employee and the employer, because it allows the employee to figure out if the work and workplace are suitable for him or her. No remuneration was paid for a trial day. It can be argued that trial days have now been replaced by voluntary work, with the duration of voluntary work being up to several months.
Voluntary work is listed in the Government of the Republic Regulation “Employment Program 2021–2023” as one activity to prepare people for employment. Based on the information on the website of the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, the purpose of voluntary work is to facilitate employment, help prepare for working life, provide new experiences and knowledge, and help to create or maintain work habits. Voluntary work can involve a variety of activities that serve the public interest and benefit the society. In particular, voluntary work is envisaged in the fields of culture, education, social work, environmental protection or other public interest.
Persons who have registered as unemployed can participate in voluntary work that helps to prepare for employment. However, the website points out that the direct purpose of voluntary work shall not be economic activity, income generation or saving on labour costs. Volunteers may not perform work for which paid labour is usually used.
When checking that the activities of an employer are in compliance with the Employment Contracts Act, the Labour Inspectorate proceeds from the presumption that a person working for the employer is an employee and has concluded an employment contract, and the employee has been notified in writing of the information provided by law. If an employer cannot present an employment contract, claiming that the person is a volunteer, the Labour Inspectorate has grounds to proceed from it if:
- the person has registered as unemployed in the Unemployment Insurance Fund;
- the activities of the organisation require involvement of volunteers.
If the alleged employer is unable to prove that the relationship corresponds to the aforementioned characteristics, the Labour Inspectorate shall proceed from the legislation that provides it with supervisory competence and the presumption of employment arising from the Employment Contracts Act.
If a person employed by an employer as a volunteer finds that the content of the work and the working conditions actually correspond to the characteristics of an employment relationship, he or she has the right to turn to a labour dispute resolution body to establish an employment relationship.
As with trial days, one of the objectives of voluntary work is to save on labour costs and, if necessary, to terminate a volunteer’s activities pursuant to a simplified procedure. The Tax and Customs Board has increasingly had more contact with employees registered as volunteers in the course of employee registration inspections. Most of them work in retail, food and beverage service, and construction.