A volunteer is not an employee and therefore is not covered by employment law.

For somebody to be a volunteer they must not expect payment and they must not receive payment.

It is often obvious when someone is a volunteer, for example, volunteering once weekly for a charity or community with no expectation of payment. The situation can be much more complicated when it comes to work experience, work trials and unpaid internships.

Legal positon

A volunteer is not an employee, so employment law does not apply to them (with the exception of Health and Safety law).

If the parties want a volunteer relationship, it’s important they make it clear that the worker does not expect payment and does not receive payment. Otherwise, the worker may be judged to be an employee and will be entitled to minimum entitlements. For example, they will have to be paid minimum wage and cannot be dismissed unless it is justified.

Minimum wage has more information about the different types of minimum wage.


If an employer pays volunteers then they may be deemed to be an employee. However, payment does not include: 

  • reimbursing the volunteer for the expenses they incurred when performing the volunteer work
  • a koha or honoraria
  • any personal satisfaction a volunteer may get from the work.

Work experience, trials, internships and studentships

Work experience, short-term work trials and longer unpaid internships are increasingly common in some industries.

If an employer does not want to pay somebody to do these roles they must make sure that the person is a volunteer.

Unpaid work experience, trials and internships

If an employer is thinking of having somebody do an unpaid work trial or internship, or work experience, they should:

  • make absolutely clear that the position is a volunteer position and that the person does not expect payment or other reward. This should be done in writing.
  • make sure that the volunteer does not receive any payment.
  • avoid getting an economic benefit from the work done by the volunteer.
  • avoid having the volunteer do work which is integral to the business, such as work that an employee would ordinarily do.
  • limit the duration of work and the hours worked by the volunteer. The longer a person volunteers and the more hours they work, the more likely they are to be an employee.

The legality of no-pay or low-pay internship

Paid work trials

If you are thinking of having a paid work trial you should use a trial period clause or a probationary clause.

Trial and probationary periods has information on this.

Paid internship

If you are thinking of having a paid internship, you might be able to use a fixed-term agreement. However, you will still need a genuine reason for the fixed term and the pay must be at least at the level of the minimum wage.


A studentship is a type of scholarship (not a job), therefore it is tax free and not covered by the employment laws. The work that students do is similar to that of a volunteer, and the student benefits from the arrangement. If you are considering offering a studenship, you need to:

  • put in writing that the studentship is an arrangement on a voluntary basis
  • know that the minimum wage does not apply to studentships where students do a period of work experience in an academic department. For example, helping researchers with their projects
  • know that the payments offered in a studentship may vary, depending on budgets from different departments and the proposed duration of the research project.

Most students feel that the experience they gain from their studenship is a lot more valuable than the money they can make, therefore the amount of payment is not a big deciding factor.

However, it is encouraged that universities pay at least the minimum wage for the studentship to recognise the hard work and the valuable contribution of their students.

Types of employee has information on the different types of employees.

This statement sets out the Labour Inspectorate’s position on work in a business operation without payment of wages.

Labour Inspectorate Position Statement – Work In A Business Operation Without Payment of Wages [PDF 199KB]

Health and safety

For information on how health and safety law applies to volunteers, see the Worksafe New Zealand website (external link) .


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Page last revised: 22 December 2020

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