Wolf in Sheep’s Skin? On the Use and Abuse of Volunteerism, AKA Unpaid Labor

Political and social pressure to volunteer is on the rise. Charities are now relying on volunteer work to deliver state subcontracted services. It is time to question this trend and what it means for the rising percentage of unemployed people who are pushed into working for free.

Walk around London and you will notice the many posters endorsed by the Mayor of London encouraging people to volunteer to increase their career chances. Volunteering at football clubs helps doctors become better at their jobs while volunteering at a zoo will help aspiring zookeepers find employment. Whatever you may want to do professionally in the public or third-sector, get volunteering to fill up that CV!

Political and social pressure to volunteer – and to volunteer to get a job – is on the rise even as jobs in the charities sector and elsewhere become ever rarer. At the same time, charities are increasingly relying on volunteer work to deliver state (subcontracted) services, and more and more volunteers are people who are seeking employment. Increasingly volunteering is just a fancy word for un-paid work and a band-aid for cutting services. This is not to say that volunteering isn’t an admirable activity or that people shouldn’t be contributing their skills, time, knowledge and compassion for causes they care about and indeed for the benefit of their community. But the political glorification of volunteering in an age of austerity needs to come with a public debate about replacing paid and qualified labour with unpaid labour, especially in the charity sector.

A Foot in Which Door?

Many of today’s volunteers are people seeking employment. They end up working for free to be able to gain some sort of experience and access a job.

According to the community life survey for 2013-2014, 27% of unemployed people engage in formal voluntary work, an increase of five percent since 2011 and a higher proportion than people in employment. This is true of both women and men, young and middle-aged and it holds an important message: people who may indeed want a job are working for free with or without the actual prospect of employment at the end of their volunteering period.

There is a subtle but unquestionable class dimension at play. Volunteering is generally recommended to everyone aiming to get a foot in the employment door as a way of gaining experience and understanding the system. For example, for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and immigrants seeking to work in the third-sector, the recommendation to volunteer is almost immediate. This is all the more problematic as it seems to go relatively unquestioned by those who have to undergo it: giving up your time and skills for free comes with the package of looking for a job and needs to be accepted as such. These ‘volunteers’ are often youth or adults who are in need of a job, who need to support families and who hope that this is one of the ways in which they can enhance their chances at paid employment.

Internships as the gateway for a graduate job follow a similar pattern: work for free and you might end up being paid. Interns, however, have in the past years started to mobilize, asking for their right to be paid. Internships also tend to supply recruits for professional and managerial roles whereas volunteers can usually hope only to work in lower status jobs involving direct service delivery.

In 2014, the National Council for Voluntary Organizations published a report where it addressed the benefits that volunteering has for those seeking employment. A quick read further reinforces many of the concerns raised here. The report is explicit in encouraging people to work for free to increase their chances of employment. In particular, it stresses the self-esteem and confidence that the long-term unemployed can gain through volunteering to lessen the stigma of unemployment. Volunteering may well have this function, but think of what an actual paid job could do. Moreover, cast in this light, volunteering becomes a sort of rite of passage on the way to paid employment: work for free enthusiastically enough, build your skills and you might be rewarded with a job. Volunteering is in fact a problematic work relationship that sets the parameters for potential employment. Veiling unpaid labour in the clothes of ‘it will do you good’ is disingenuous at best.

Service Delivery at Lower Human Labor Costs

There is a growing industry of volunteer recruitment (volunteer coordinators and managers; volunteer support workers; volunteer strategies and retreats). This industry provides the tools to allow volunteering to complement, if not at times outright replace, paid workers in outsourced government services. This apparatus and the messaging it produces helps instil the idea that it is wonderful to be a volunteer, no matter the cause. The language used for recruitment appeals to volunteers’ kindness and compassion and stresses the ‘exciting opportunities’ volunteering provides for volunteers.

Charities’ attempts to reduce labour costs is understandable, but alarming, in a sector that is delivering state-subcontracted services. While it is widely repeated that the use of volunteers should not substitute paid labour, this is increasingly empty lip-service, particularly in organizations that undergo a process of restructuring or downsizing. According to established consultants in the business of volunteer management:

‘Increasing the number of volunteers in organisations will not solve all the problems we face in these challenging times, but it has to be a serious option. Faced with two undesirable redundancy situations – letting all staff go and closing a service, or retaining a skeleton staff and increasing the number of volunteers – we would advocate the latter every time.’

It would be telling to look at the number of full-time employees made redundant in a specific organization as it downsizes and then see how many volunteers are being used in their stead. That way we could deduce the extent to which paid labour is being replaced by free labour. This type of information, however, does not seem to be publicly available. Similarly, it is an interesting exercise to look at guidelines for calculating the value of volunteering. Such guidelines highlight the way in which organizations think about and utilize volunteers, which has little to do with the kindness or compassion and everything to do with balancing the books. Substituting volunteers for paid workers can then be used to reinforce a charity’s claim to ‘value for money’ and strengthen its image as an ‘outstanding entity’ in its bid for funding from donors. Using volunteers makes your organization more competitive by cutting costs and by virtue of having more volunteers, as that helps maintain and promote the image of an ‘ideal’ type of organization to which people devote their time, knowledge and skills.

One experience I had helps illustrate the dynamic described. It involved a government-funded programme that presents irregular migrants and rejected asylum-seekers – some of whom were detained and facing removal – with the option to leave the UK. A small resettlement grant was offered to those whose asylum claims had been rejected and who, faced with the alternative of detention and removal, opted for returning to their home country. Higher rates of ‘voluntary return’ translated into significant savings for the government by allowing it to avoid a costly forcible removal. Volunteers were always an important part of this service, but the organization I worked with is now increasingly reliant on this free labour. After it underwent a downsizing process, the number of volunteers increased considerably. Beyond the replacement of paid workers with volunteers, I think this case rises two wider questions: what is an acceptable use of unpaid labour for state-sponsored services without public scrutiny? And what causes can legitimately be presented as volunteer-worthy?

Political Endorsement of Volunteering

There is currently a strong political push to support volunteering. It places rather less emphasis, however, on the benefits of volunteering for a government that is pushing the unemployed to work for free in order to provide services for which public funding has been cut. Yet so long as the idea of volunteering is associated only with civic participation and lauded for the benefits it confers to those involved, the idea of unpaid labour can be politically instrumentalized.

A visit to the Mayor of London’s volunteering web page can leave one slightly puzzled. It heralds, ‘The new platform will enable young people to build an online CV of their volunteering experiences, and use the skills they gain to access to paid work opportunities provided by London employers.’ It goes on, advertising, ‘Young Londoners will also be able to access thousands of volunteer opportunities posted by the capital’s Volunteer Centres through the new service.’ In other words, we are encouraging young people to work for free, accumulate as much and as diverse unpaid work experience as possible, and then suggesting that this might eventually become appealing to London employers.

This development is not limited to the UK. The UN has developed the 2014-2017 UNV (UN Volunteers) Strategic Framework that focuses on ‘harnessing the power of volunteers and volunteerism to support the achievement of internationally agreed goals.’ Or, in one of the bolder admissions of the principle, it argues volunteers can help by ‘Complementing essential basic services where they are lacking or where they are insufficient.’ States agree that for service delivery goals to be realized, it is alright to delegate the attendant responsibilities to volunteers.

Wolf in Sheep’s Skin?

In times of dire economic stress, there should be no question about the need to lend time and skills in order to reinforce the spirit of solidarity and sense of togetherness that makes people forge a common future. But beware of wolves in sheep’s skins. In addition to the continuous professionalization of volunteer management and volunteer support roles in organizations, the political endorsement of volunteering is opening the door to an even easier acceptance of what is essentially free labour, however it ends up being justified. There is an ever greater need to critically interrogate this practice. At present, people are being pushed into doing the work of the state for free in hopes of getting a job somewhere down the line.