Preventing exploitation and maintaining good relations between workers and volunteers

18 February 2019

My first job in 1982 was part-time organising secretary for Aberdeen Voluntary Organisation's Centre.

George Thomson 2017WEBI was employed by the Scottish Council of Social Services (SCSS), renamed the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) in 1986. We were a resource centre for the city's voluntary organisations and I learned about their needs, including volunteering.

At the same time I gained a second part-time job as an adult education tutor with the Workers Educational Association (WEA), and my main responsibility was working on the STUC day-release programme for volunteer shop stewards and health and safety representatives.

You could say that it was an early introduction to two great complementary traditions and expressions of volunteering. The first is based on charity volunteering and focused on recruitment and retention, and the other centres on solidarity, advocacy and campaigning. I'll never forget the fish canning workers representatives from Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and their courage, comradeship and endurance though difficult challenges.

It was great to see the United Nations achieve inter-governmental consensus about what characterises volunteering during the 2001 International Year of Volunteers. Importantly it includes mutual support and self-help volunteering activity, alongside formal service and campaigning.

So why do I think that a joint charter is needed? This charter updates the existing joint STUC Volunteer Scotland Charter to take account of a new context and the need for clear and unambiguous principles for assuring volunteer legitimacy and preventing exploitation. The key goal is to ensure good relations between workers and volunteers, and to ensure that other stakeholders achieve consensus on the validity of volunteer roles.

We’re reframing volunteering. In the past there has been a disproportionate attention on formal volunteering and unpaid work and not enough focus on the main experience of volunteering, which is generally helping out where relationships are prime. This includes helping out in community-buildings, for example. Generally, we know each other there and the associations and connections create a meaningful and natural environment to give time voluntarily.

Sadly, I think we urgently need to strengthen our community fabric. To develop trust and relationships where it’s easy to ask others to volunteer or where people feel like they can volunteer, whoever they are.

At the same time we have fundamental and challenging working conditions such as the so called gig economy which are precarious and can be highly exploitative and inhuman. A young group of social action volunteers in Better Than Zero have put their concerns right out there about the potential for volunteer roles to be exploitative of workers and volunteers. With the support of Unite the Union they have shaken some of the assumptions we've held, and to be critically aware about what is legitimate and what not in volunteer engagement. A contested space.

The joint STUC/Volunteer Scotland Charter is designed to help ensure that exploitation doesn't arise and to promote a very positive values basis for volunteer growth and inclusion. There are 10 key principles that guide stakeholder negotiations. We aim to prevent the conflicts that have arisen in the past where some volunteer roles have been seen as a displacement of workers, and to achieve a vitally important goal of maintaining good relations between workers and volunteers.

Blog originally published on Third Force News, view here.

Categories: For Organisations