There is little doubt of the urgent need to involve citizens in community development. But current labour legislation discourages, rather than encourages, volunteering in South Africa.

Non-governmental organisations operating on shoestring budgets cannot afford to employ additional staff and need all the voluntary help they can get.

But present labour legislation does not specify that paying a stipend to volunteers is different from paying a casual employee and does not entitle volunteers to the same rights as formal labour. Non-governmental organisations are therefore often wary of paying stipends.

“We know of an instance, for example, where a rural organisation was paying volunteers a stipend of R200 per month. When they needed to cut their volunteer numbers due to budgetary constraints, volunteers laid a complaint of “unfair dismissal” and the court ruled in their favour,” says Joan Daries, director of The Volunteer Centre in Cape Town.

Volunteering is a useful way for unemployed people to gain skills and experience which would benefit them in their job-search, says Daries.

“But most unemployed people cannot afford to spend money they don’€™t have on transport. This has the unfortunate effect of limiting volunteering to those privileged enough to be able to cover their own petty costs. This is why we need legislation which stipulates that paying a stipend is not the same as paying labour and doesn’€™t amount to casual employment.”

“The realities in South Africa are such that, in the absence of such legislation, people who are aware of their rights and not afraid to use them will see volunteering as an easy short-cut to employment. This frightens off non-governmental organisations who desperately need volunteer help,” says Daries. ‘€“ Health-e news service