“Hello, I’ve been told I have to volunteer.”
I still remember clearly hearing these words on the phone at work one morning, even though it was over a year ago, because it led me to meet a group of people who went on to organise the Boycott Workfare campaign. This phone call set off my alarm bells straight away. By definition, nobody has to volunteer. People volunteer for many different reasons. For some, it is a way of gaining work experience, while for others it can be therapeutic activity or a chance to socialise. It can simply be an opportunity to do something creative or worthwhile. The one thing all volunteers have in common is a freely made choice to work unpaid. What will my job as a volunteer coordinator become, if I ignore the distinction between volunteering and mandatory workfare? Will I have to help organise and police compulsory, unpaid, involuntary labour? Will I have to manage ‘volunteers’ who are reluctant to work?
I work with a small community environmental organisation. We rely on volunteers to function. But there is much more to the voluntary sector than the ability to harness the work of volunteers. We were set up by volunteers and we should still be led by them. Providing the space for voluntary work is part of our purpose. It should keep us rooted in our communities and focused on what distinguishes us from the public and commercial sectors. This is why it is crucial that we do not forget what it means to volunteer. Blurring the distinction between voluntary work and compulsory unpaid labour isn’t just bad for benefit claimants, it is bad for the voluntary sector. Collaborating with workfare will erode what is distinctive about our sector and undermine the trust of many of those we work with.
Many people who volunteer are the same people who are being affected by the ‘welfare reforms’. As a sector, we often rely on people who are free to help us when most people are working, including many people who rely on benefits to get by. Previously, the main issues this raised was ensuring that people did not jeopardise their entitlement to benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance by volunteering too much. Never mind that many people correctly see volunteering as a way of gaining valuable employment skills, work experience and references as well as an opportunity to demonstrate their motivation to potential employers. Frustratingly, the one constant in how successive governments’ have tried to manage the relationship between the benefit claimants and the voluntary sector is compulsion. Claimants are either told they must not volunteer too much or that they must ‘volunteer’, otherwise there will be sanctions. How much more could be achieved if the emphasis was shifted towards policies that facilitated collaboration between claimants and the voluntary sector?
We should be careful when drawing analogies between workfare and the workhouse. Workfare has not reached the depths plumbed by these Institutions. But, it is fair to say that workfare is a step backwards taking us closer to the sort of society that enacted the Poor Laws. That is why I believe that we should boycott workfare. If you work in the voluntary sector, here is what you can do to help:
- Get active with the Boycott Workfare campaign. Join an existing local group or set one up.
- Make the case at work for why your organisation should not cooperate with workfare.
- Lobby your organisation to sign up to the pledge to Boycott Workfare.
- Provide us with first hand accounts of how workfare really works.