Asking too much of volunteers?

11 04 2012

We all know, or should do by now, about the Guardians FOI into job availability  and what it means for people surviving on working tax credits or those looking for work. I wont reiterate that story here. What I’m having a rant about is the current alternative to paid work, voluntary work but the two are linked, as the reduction of paid employment continues, there is a rise in people looking for volunteers.

Voluntary work is a fantastic concept. You help an organisation that really needs it for nothing more than a thank you at the end of the day. You share your skills and experience for the benefit of the people who need it most. Volunteering is allegedly the “glue that holds a community together” (I’m not even gonna link that cheesy quote). We are told that volunteering is a fantastic route into paid employment. Volunteering boosts self-confidence and self-esteem. Volunteering improves and adds to existing skills. Volunteering provides structure to your day. And volunteers arent paid a penny in remuneration.

Don’t get me wrong, if you have the time, capability and financial resources to be able to give something to an organisation for free, that is fantastic but there is always a down side to it all. If you are on benefits you can volunteer, but there are “rules”, the adherence to which seems to vary from jobcentre to jobcentre. Glasgow Volunteer Centre have a reasonably simple explanation page. There is a tiny wee sentence about how the work you are allowed to do as a volunteer must not be something the organisation should be paying for, and this is where the ridiculously fuzzy and at times confusingly placed line. This message should be emblazoned across the page in huge flashing neon letters, yet it always appears to be tucked away somewhere and it is the most potentially dangerous element of something as “nice” as volunteering.

If you are on benefits and you are volunteering in a role that should be paid, all it requires is your adviser thinking its a job you should be paid for and you can lose your money. I’ve checked with a few people who work for DWP, who have confirmed this is the case. There are no strict guidelines available to the public as to what constitutes what “should” be paid for work. It appears to be on the face of it a very subjective issue.

So here is my problem,  on a popular Scottish  job search site last week, 30% of part-time vacancies listed were “voluntary”. This does not bode well if they are advertising among people looking to be paid for the work they do. But Lo!, this is a great route into employment. Employers like to know you haven’t been idle with your time on the dole. Show them how wonderful you are by volunteering. Great! (no really!) But there is a minor problem, where the job titles are identical to the paid vacancies they sit alongside, one would then expect the work to be identical too. If the voluntary work is identical to the paid work, we have an issue.

I recently applied to volunteer with a well known organisation, but stopped at the point where I was asked to sign a “contract” guaranteeing I would commit a minimum of 12 hours per week for a minimum of 6 months to the organisation. I could not guarantee contractually that my circumstances would not change, and if I found paid employment I was not prepared to have give 30days notice to the voluntary organisation. I doubt they would have chased me in court for leaving but there was talk of having to pay back training costs if I left early. I wouldn’t have that kind of money spare. This is not me being a cruel and heartless bastard, this is me being realistic. I felt they asked too much of a volunteer, and I’m not alone in that understanding.

Today I saw a position for Volunteer Training Programme Designer. A job that can command wages in the region of £30k+ per annum… except this was a voluntary role. Unpaid. The degree of expertise and work involved in designing a training programme for volunteers is, from experience, rather specialised. I can only imagine the faces of the advisers as you sign on for your JSA and hand in your wee ‘look at me I’m volunteering form’, where the job title is somewhat more grandiose than theirs and the ‘should be paid for’ pay packet probably two to three times what advisers can expect sitting miserably in their nuclear bomb resistant bunkers. And lets not forget, if you are on jobseekers allowance, you still have to be actively looking for work at the same time.

Also, there are more and more voluntary positions looking for people to turn up already in possession of the PVG  membership and necessary background checks, which aren’t cost-free! Nope, you have to pay £59 to join. Most employers appear to be asking for this before you apply for jobs, and some volunteer organisations are asking for it too. If you’re on JSA, that’s an awful lot of money.

This may sound like I’m not an advocate of volunteering, which is wrong, I am very much pro-volunteering, but I think we need to be more realistic about volunteering. It is not a replacement for paid staff, it’s people donating their time. And donating is a huge part of it. It’s not to be forced upon people.

Since the launch of The Big Society concept, organisations have been guilting people into doing more than they were previously expected to as volunteers. With fewer and fewer jobs available due to funding cuts and the work still requiring to be done, requesting volunteers who have more extensive and specialised skills seems to be more popular than ever. And I cant help but feel this is all being done with the government’s seal of approval.

We cannot expect to take away people’s jobs and replace them with voluntary workers but it seems that is what is happening. There is the workfare outrage where employers are giving “jobs” to unpaid benefits recipients, which employed co-workers claim is cutting their hours and conversely pay down. There are now voluntary jobs advertised like training package designers while paid training managers in similar organisations are having to take redundancy and reduced hours. Volunteering should not be an alternative to paid work. It should be supplementary, it should be a route into employment if that is why you do it. It should not account for one-third of jobs advertised on a site for job seekers.




One response

16 04 2012

Great article GHL. However Volunteering can be a way for organisations to simply use your skills and services for nothing! I worked for 2 years as a volunteer at a day centre for adults with learning difficulties and was told that they would love to employ me: but why should they pay me while I was willing to do all the “Skills for Life” courses free? A skills tutor’s wages are at least £8.00 and up to £35.00 per hour. To be fair they had a point. Frequently if used in this way, volunteering can actually undermine your job prospects!

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