Sunday, April 10, 2016
Sexism meets volunteerization in Australia, and I'm not the least bit surprised but I am very alarmed
All around Australia, all levels of government, non-profits and businesses have been converting work roles that were previously professional, skilled or unskilled paid jobs into volunteer roles, often with the same level of duties, recruitment process requirements and hours as the job once had as a paid role. This is alarming enough in an economic climate of recession and high levels of unemployment, but one aspect of this volunteerisation trend, which has been going on for a number of years, is that it appears to be happening the most in areas of work with high levels of female employees. Libraries, museums, hospitals and health services, counselling services, hospitality, beauty, hairdressing, broadcast media, journalism, marketing, environmental services, government cultural services and the events industry in government and private enterprise are employers and occupations that come to mind as participants in the volunteerization trend, but that could reflect my ignorance of other areas of work. This trend of converting jobs in feminized occupations into volunteer roles or internships could be seen as congruent with the well-known and long-established tradition of unequal pay for women, the only difference being instead of being underpaid, now the people performing in these roles, I guess mostly women, unemployed tertiary students and the elderly, get no pay at all and none of the associated rights of paid workers such as long-service leave, sick leave, parental leave etc. The workers are being screwed-over, women are being robbed of employment opportunities, a culture of sexism and the devaluation of women's contributions to society thrives unchallenged in Australia and we must also assume that those who are the recipients of these services will also be losers.
Can we assume that volunteers, possibly elderly, retired, untrained, impoverished, unemployed or possessing dated qualifications, will give the same level and quality of service as workers appointed to paid roles? Of course we cant. The cost of wages is saved, but I think even within the organisations which convert paid roles into voluteer work, there will be added costs resulting from the new policy. Volunteer coordinators need to be hired, and this role might not be as simple as it might seem, as this role involves managing workers with diverse and varying levels of motivation who often have issues that extend beyond the workplace. Volunteer coordinators probably also have to deal with agencies beyond their own employer, in a role that that certifies volunteering requirements or volunteering credit schemes of schools, universities and agencies appointed by the federal government to run the lives of unemployed people. Burnout appears to be an issue for paid and volunteer volunteer coordinators, which is hardly surprising. Volunteer coordinators will also most likely be called-upon to act as referees for job-seekers, an unpaid role with considerable responsibility. There's also the stress of working in a position that consists of implementing corporate policies about the use of volunteers which could be immoral or illegal.
We also need to consider the possibility of added costs to the organisation flowing on from issues with the quality of work performed by volunteers. This isn't necessarily a criticism of volunteers per se, just an observation that many volunteers will have a casual attachment to the organization that they work for and might have less knowledge of its history and procedures, which could impact on work in process or publicity roles. At the risk of sounding ageist, I must point out that elderly volunteers of 2016 will come from generations that had rates of tertiary education much lower than average levels of education of the middle-aged "boomers" or the "gen Xers", who had the option of taking advantage of free degrees after the Whitlam era and before the "Dawkins Revolution" in the late 1980s. The elderly as a group also have much lower rates of education as the young generations with ages the same recent graduates of university degrees and post-graduate awards. Basic literacy cannot be assumed in retired and elderly volunteers. One report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics gave the proportion of people with an adequate or higher level of prose literacy in the 65-74 years age group as only 27.3% in 2006. The age group with the highest level of literacy found in 2006 was the 25-34 years age group with a level of adequate prose literacy of 61.5%, with literacy levels declining steadily as the ages of groups rose from this age group. I simply do not have time to outline the many hazards of employing uneducated or illiterate people into any kind of paid or volunteer role. The scope for screw-ups is beyond imagination. Any organization that relies on elderly volunteers will have to either wear the cost of having uneducated workers or will have to put in place pretty extraordinary recruitment strategies to extract motivated and educated volunteers from this target population. Good luck with that!
Any discussion of the pros and cons of converting paid jobs into "volunteering opportunities" also needs to consider the little problem that this practice is generally illegal. Unless the organization that the volunteers work for is a non-profit, or the volunteering is a formal vocational placement that is part of an education or training course, I don't see how converting paid into unpaid roles can be legal under Australian law. Common sense tells us that it it immoral to train people to perform a role that has been volunteerised if the trainess have the expectation that their training will lead to opportunities in paid work, regardless of whether or not this training is done within a framework that is legal or illegal.
The only obvious benefit of this form of exploitation that I call "volunteerisation" is the savings of labour costs for governments, non-profits and businesses, but when you look at the big picture everyone loses, especially women.
Regina Titelius (2016) Perth’s Princess Margaret Hospital for children axes play co-ordinators. PerthNow. April 7th 2016.
Fair Work Ombudsman. Unpaid Work.