30th August 2022

Volunteering during strikes: more harm than good?

Over the past week we have seen several news articles about volunteers cleaning up rubbish in Edinburgh where council workers have been on strike.

It comes as no surprise to us that volunteers have been keen to help in the face of a crisis; they stepped up during the pandemic and it is admirable that they would choose to help out now. However, as more council workers across Scotland start striking, we believe that volunteers stepping in to prop up essential services during strikes is to be discouraged, not celebrated.

Firstly, this is not a black and white issue. There is a clear difference between an individual choosing to clear the street in front of their home and an organised group of volunteers paying for and filling bins that they have sourced from private refuse companies. It is the activity at the latter end of the scale that we are most concerned about.

There is, of course, the issue of cost. Volunteers should never be out of pocket for their volunteering so we would have real concern with volunteers footing the bill for privately sourced bins or even using their own bin bags. We would also argue that it is not the responsibility of charities or communities to foot the bill for this – refuse collection is an essential service provided by local authorities and it is their responsibility to ensure it gets done (and paid for).

If the council stump up the cash, does that then make it OK for volunteers to help I hear you ask? The short answer is still a resounding ‘no’. Public Health Scotland said on the 26th of August that the accumulation of waste across Scotland because of strikes is a risk to human health. They have stated that ‘the public should avoid contact with refuse in public areas’ and have suggested that decontamination of areas where bins have overflowed might be required. This all points to the fact that volunteers collecting waste are putting themselves at risk. They require Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training in how to handle refuse safely which is less likely to have taken place in a rapid reactive response.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the engagement of volunteers to fill gaps in service created by strikes is undermining the paid roles of striking staff and weakening the ethos of volunteering. We are all acutely aware of the challenging financial climate in the UK right now and the Scottish Government have already warned of challenging decisions ahead. The photos we have seen of Edinburgh over the last week have highlighted just how important our refuse collectors, and other council workers, are. Regardless of whether you are in favour of the strikes or not, we need to protect these vital paid roles and not contribute to the erosion of our public services.

Similarly, we do not want to see the principles of volunteering being undermined. When volunteers start providing more essential services, it challenges the idea that volunteering is undertaken with free will and for community benefit. We are not saying that the contribution of volunteers is not vital or important – far from it. More that we need to maintain an appropriate distinction between paid and voluntary tasks so that the integrity and value of both types of labour are protected.

In 2019, Volunteer Scotland and the STUC released a Volunteer Charter which sets out 10 principles for assuring legitimacy and preventing exploitation of workers and volunteers. Several values underpin the Charter, including recognising people as assets, not commodities, and it states that volunteers and paid workers should be able to carry out their duties in safe, secure and healthy environments, and that volunteers should not undertake the work of paid workers during industrial disputes.

We know that it is going to be a challenging winter and that further strike action from other parts of the public sector is possible. As such, we will leave you with these key messages:

  • Local Authorities and public service providers: Familiarise yourself with the Volunteer Charter and make sure not to endorse or support volunteers undertaking the roles of paid workers during strikes. If you are in doubt, please feel free to get in touch with us as we can provide some guidance.
  • Volunteers: We know that strikes can be disruptive and that you might want to help, but please think twice before embarking on any activity that is normally completed by paid workers. You might be putting yourself or others at risk, and you are undermining the paid role of striking workers.