Where’s the line between volunteering and exploitation?

fireworksIT’S Saturday morning, I’m at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, and there’s an excited buzz in the air. It’s Commonwealth Games audition day, and a couple of hundred eager folk are getting ready to meet the choreography team tasked with staging opening and closing ceremonies to wow the world.

A young woman is telling some fellow auditionees about the joys of such performances: you have to take the chance if you get it, she says; the buzz is just incredible. If she passes muster today, this will be her third. She’s been bitten by the bug and was thrilled when it was announced the Games were coming to Glasgow, so she wouldn’t have far to travel.

It transpires she lives in Wales.

This isn’t quite what I was expecting. Of course the majority of people auditioning have Scottish accents and many, like me, only just make up in enthusiasm what they lack in co-ordination. But others have travelled long distances to be here. Some are dancers, either professional or very talented amateur, and effortlessly reproduce the routines.

People enquire about rehearsal dates but the organisers are keeping tight-lipped for the time being. “They’ll be at weekends, won’t they?” an older woman asks me. “They’d need to be, surely?”

Hang on a minute, I think. The buzz may well be incredible but that’s a heck of a workload

Two weeks pass, and finally word: I’m a reserve. By the time a sufficient number of more graceful folk pull out, and I rise to the top of the list, rehearsals are already under way. A friend from Edinburgh advises that she’s opted to be in the opening ceremony, so she “only has 17” – a mixture of evenings and weekends – to attend. Hang on a minute, I think. The buzz may well be incredible but that’s a heck of a workload. I decide to make way for someone with more free time and fewer commitments.

When July rolled around I fully embraced the spirit of the Games, cheering on underdogs, high-fiving Clydesiders and getting my picture taken with an anthropomorphised thistle all over the city. But I also heard of volunteers – experts in their sports – being assigned some pretty punishing shifts. And while the programme included some free events that were open to all, I wondered how much the joyful spirit of the Games was reaching those who weren’t able to afford tickets to the athletics or cycling or gymnastics, and were too busy slogging away in minimum-wage jobs to hang around outside stadia waving giant foam fingers.

Glasgow 2014 was a one-off, a “mega event” as they say in the trade, and few batted an eyelid at the recruitment of thousands of volunteers to help make it a triumph, even when some of them were bringing the kind of talent and expertise for which they would normally be paid. But when Edinburgh’s Hogmanay advertised for hundreds of volunteer “ambassadors”, hot on the heels of SNP MP Stewart McDonald stepping up his campaign against unpaid work trials, the reaction was swift and strongly critical.

When Edinburgh’s Hogmanay advertised for hundreds of volunteer ‘ambassadors’, the reaction was swift and strongly critical

And no wonder. Because not only are the organisers, Underbelly, trying to recruit people to help welcome visitors, steer a torchlight procession and guide a literary trail, it’s also try to recruit supervisors and “deputy volunteer managers” … all for free.

Anyone who thinks the management of volunteers is a walk in the park has never met a volunteer manager, or pondered the special kind of diplomacy such a role demands. And anyone who takes on such a role on one of the coldest and most boozed-up nights of the year should probably not bank on having a happy Hogmanay. How, exactly, might one “ensure all ambassadors are engaging with the public with a positive attitude and delivering a great experience for all members of the public”? What if members of campaign group Better Than Zero infiltrate their ranks and decide to engage with the public about the ethics of Underbelly’s business model instead?

This isn’t to suggest there’ll be a shortage of applicants. If anything, the negative publicity is only likely to increase the number of applications from people who are desperate to boost their CVs, even if it means sacrificing a special night of revelry with family and friends. Underbelly insists the volunteer roles will not replace any paid employment, but this is a slippery sort of argument. Sure, these 300 extra bodies might not be essential for the event to run – as there will also be plenty of paid stewards, security staff and queue managers – but they will affect how it is experienced, and potentially how much attendees are willing to pay for tickets in future years.

If anything, the negative publicity is only likely to increase the number of applications

Some might say it’s wrong to clamp down on unpaid work when many people – particularly young people – are keen to do it. But where do we draw the line? How many weeks, months or years of volunteering might end up being required before a job applicant can outshine their rivals and bag a paid post? There’s little point in the Scottish Government trying to close the attainment gap and widen university access if the employment playing field remains massively skewed in favour of those who can afford to work for free.

There will always be a place for volunteering, and bans beyond that proposed by McDonald would be very tricky to delineate. Instead, the likes of Underbelly should voluntarily reflect on the ethics of their business practices – and consider putting people before profit.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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