Qantas under fire for volunteer-to-work scheme — but is it even legal?

It has been a tumultuous weekend for Qantas ahead of the busiest period of the year for airports after the airline came under fire for a program which allows head office workers to volunteer assistance to frontline staff over Christmas.

The airline described the program as about “spreading a bit of Christmas cheer”, but the Australian Services Union (ASU) has slammed the scheme as an example of corporate greed.

Workers who sign up are “required” to assist with check-in, bussing gates, concourse arrivals and other customer service functions.

There appears to be no charitable element, meaning Qantas themselves are the beneficiaries of the work, although the airline doubled down over the weekend, saying it wasn’t about cutting costs.

“We always scale up with additional paid staff over the peak holiday period. And we also asked head office employees if they’d like to lend a hand,” Qantas said in a statement.

“It’s unfortunate that the ASU is trying to turn this into a negative. It’s all hands on deck at this time of year and we’re really grateful that some head office staff are willing to lend a hand.”

Qantas said its executives, some of whom are paid over $1 million a year, also participate in the volunteer program, although that has done little to allay criticism.

Is it even legal?

Trent Hancock, principal lawyer at McDonald Murholme, says certian volunteer schemes may constitute a breach of the Fair Work Act.

“I’ve seen thousands and thousands of employer relationships and this is the first time I’ve seen this,” he tells SmartCompany.

“Generally speaking, if an existing employee is providing work for the benefit of their employer, then they are entitled to be paid for that work.”

However, Hancock says because Qantas is asking employees whether they want to participate in the program, as opposed to directing them, there’s no obligation to work or expectation of pay.

“Ultimately it’s not a direction, it’s an invitation.”

Qantas is asking volunteers to conduct work ordinarily done by paid employees though, which Hancock says is significant.

“The type of work described in the invitation says Qantas wants volunteers to perform work that certainly seems to be essential,” he explains.

The program may also have the effect of indirectly pressuring workers that want to impress their employer into volunteering, which could take work that would have otherwise been available to a paid employee.

Voluntary work a minefield

The backlash against the program highlights some of the dangers of voluntary work, often undertaken by businesses through intern programs.

Where work being undertaken by volunteers or unpaid interns falls under duties usually performed by a paid employee, businesses should steer clear, Hancock says.

But if the work is not central, and is charitable and ancillary to the operation of the business, volunteer arrangements are acceptable.

“If an intern is working for the benefit of the business then an employment relationship may have been created, and therefore an obligation to pay,” Hancock says.