February 7, 2015
Technically, all unpaid work is illegal, unless an employer can show it is a training opportunity.
This sentence leapt out at me recently when reading a columnist’s critique of internships. The writer was having a go at the dearth of jobs for new graduates, and the creeping elitism of tertiary education when being an unpaid intern is affordable only to children of the rich.
If unpaid work is illegal where does that put volunteering? Should we be nervous? And would we ever say ‘volunteering is not working’?
Of course not, except the question exposes – yet again – the looseness of English language. Have a go at writing synonyms for ‘work’ and I’ll bet in short order you’ll have a list of ten words, without even including ‘employment’.
Trouble is, ‘work’ gets conflated into ‘having a job’, ‘being employed’, ‘being paid for what you do’, and ‘work status’ is a defining personal concept in many contexts. To admit to being unemployed is not usually something to shout about. And all the while there are plenty of examples of ‘unpaid work’ that we undertake without question: mowing lawns and gardening, raising kids, ‘housework’, caring for aged parents – though we may not call these tasks ‘volunteering’.
Volunteering is work, no question. We have job descriptions and tasks to perform. We put much effort into our endeavours. The organisation will have policies which support our ‘work’ and recognise our rights, similar to employee conditions. We like to be included as ‘staff’ of the organisation, and sometimes we are happy to be referred to as ‘staff’, even if we are not paid. We are not too keen on situations where professional staff regard us as amateurs – that suggests our volunteer work is of lesser value to the organisation.
I am not hearing mumbles about volunteers encroaching on paid staff roles, nor of volunteers being seen as a threat. (Though there are concerns expressed in this nfpSynergy report, p12.) How far can we promote volunteering in the non-profit sector before there is a backlash?
But back to taking on an internship. “Whatever happened to the idea of paying for honest toil?” asks the columnist. Entry level career opportunities seem to have disappeared: it’s either a volunteer internship or flipping burgers and night-shift office cleaning. The struggle to get a foot on the employment ladder makes me wonder if gaining university qualifications are worth the effort. So it is good to see Student Job Search developing proactive partnerships with corporate groups, offering part-time permanent – and paid – positions for graduate students.
There are other anomalies related to ‘work’. New Zealand’s government office for welfare benefits is called Work & Income. A programme to get unemployed people into jobs is called Workfare. Mandatory ‘work for the dole’ is not formalised in New Zealand, and volunteering is a recommended option. We could not call compulsory ‘work experience’ volunteering, yet Volunteer Centres report growing numbers of unemployed people independently seeking volunteer positions for that purpose.
Internships and work experience placements are just a couple of indicators of changes in the employment market and job opportunities. The level of required skill has been raised; unskilled paid work is becoming hard to find. There is no longer a life-long certainty of employment; demand for technological expertise is increasing. Businesses and organisations get restructured at regular intervals. Businesses are bought and sold, and down-sized, and reports of staff lay-offs are reported frequently. So volunteering has become a popular occupation while waiting for the next spell of employment.
Volunteering will never be deemed illegal, yet with the way the world is going we might just see volunteering become an honourable profession.