Is volunteering considered “work”?

Lane Neave clients often ask for guidance around whether they can participate in “volunteer” work, when they do not hold a visa with appropriate work conditions. This query usually arises when a client wishes to assist their prospective employer whilst their work visa application is being processed, or they wish to volunteer at a commercial entity, in order to spend time with a friend when visiting New Zealand. In most cases, the individual in question is in New Zealand on the basis of a visitor visa, which specifically restricts the holder from working.

So, is it lawful to volunteer without an appropriate work visa?

From an employment perspective, a volunteer is not considered an employee, and is defined as a person who “does not expect to be rewarded for work performed as a volunteer; and receives no reward for work performed as a volunteer…”

However, from an immigration perspective, “work” is defined as “any activity undertaken for gain or reward”, which includes “any payment or benefit that can be valued in terms of money, such as board and lodging, goods (e.g. food or clothing) and services (e.g. transport).” It can therefore be seen that many activities that could be construed as volunteering would also be captured by this definition of “work” under immigration policy, and therefore not permitted.

For example, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is a popular world wide organisation where individuals undertake farm labour, in exchange for food and accommodation. Although individuals are not being financially remunerated, they are receiving gain or reward (accommodation and food), and therefore would require an appropriate work visa. On the other hand, an individual assisting in a charity event which yields no benefit to them personally, may be able to participate in such activities without a work visa.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has also recently issued further guidance, setting out that “work experience or training” can also be construed as being a “gain or reward”. This demonstrates that INZ is taking a broader approach to what is considered to be work.

It is our view that an individual should almost always avoid volunteering when they do not hold an appropriate work visa, even when arguably the activity is not undertaken for gain or reward and may be considered lawful by INZ. This is because INZ’s perception of the activities of the individual should always be considered. It would be extremely difficult to demonstrate to INZ that an individual’s volunteer work at a commercial entity is not undertaken for gain or reward in any form.

If INZ is of the view that an individual is receiving gain or reward, they may find that the individual is breaching the conditions of their visa. This could pose serious implications for current and/or future visa applications, and in the worst case result in deportation.

It is important to note that in particular circumstances, an individual can lawfully undertake volunteer work without holding a valid work visa. For example, there are specific provisions that cover volunteering for the Department of Conservation.

If you are unsure about whether you are able to lawfully participate in volunteer work on the visa you hold, you should seek immigration assistance and advice before commencing.


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Lane Neave is not able to provide legal opinion or advice without specific instructions from you and the completion of all formal engagement processes.