Calls for legislation change to protect volunteers' rights

It's National Volunteering Week and New Zealand has one of the highest volunteer rates in the world.

But an employment lawyer says volunteers need to know their rights and check that they're not in fact an employee without realising it.

Sharon Thompson lives in a housetruck in suburban Christchurch, not so much of a need for housework so more time to put into volunteering.

Thompson's worked overseas with children in Vietnam, and at various organisations back here in New Zealand.

But after being let go from a recent volunteer position, she was shocked to discover volunteers have very few rights.

"It blew my mind to find out volunteers aren't covered by any kind of standard employment law and I feel like there needs to be some kind of legislation change because volunteers are grassroots in this country," she says.

In fact, half of all New Zealanders are involved in some kind of volunteering - amounting to 159 million hours a year.

But Volunteer New Zealand says more work could be done to protect them.

"We are calling on decision-makers to support a national strategy to support volunteering so volunteer rights is only one part of the picture," says CEO Michelle Kitney.

An employment lawyer says the rights of volunteers are only covered under health and safety and privacy laws.

"There is no process or justification that an employer has to prove for a volunteer so all of those rights that we see under the Employment Relations Act aren't available to volunteers," Kathryn Dalziel says.

Dalziel says volunteers can get more protection if they've received any payment for their work and can prove they're actually employees.

"If somebody lost their role as a volunteer it's quite a good idea to get that checked and get some legal advice to see they haven't become an employee during the course of being a volunteer."

Thompson says volunteering has enriched her life but there needs to be more than that.

"We talk about valuing and appreciating our volunteers but how are we protecting them legally?" she asks.

Advocates say for the most part volunteering is good for people's wellbeing and Kiwis are good at it.

"It's just really who we are as a nation," Kitney says.

And volunteers contribute $4 billion to the economy.