Conscripted ‘volunteering’ is fast becoming a weapon used to reduce the apparent numbers of people without any waged employment. Whatever we feel about this as a long-term solution to getting the ‘economy working’, the implementation of the policy at local levels seems bizarrely blockheaded.
Cait Reilly, a keen archaeology graduate, was volunteering in her local museum. Surely a positive and enterprising thing to do and, us museum types would argue that, such actions positively contribute to the cultural and economic well-being of an area.
Yet, having agreed with the Benefits office to go on a training course about Retail Management she was obliged to stop volunteering and work for PoundLand, for free, for a number of weeks leading up to Christmas. If she didn’t, she was told she would lose her benefit.
Who loses and gains in this situation?
Well, no doubt training companies set up to receive money from the government to run such retraining schemes need a constant throughput of referrals to maintain their profits The retailers offering the ‘quality work experience’ no doubt loved having ‘no-pay staff’ in the run up to Christmas … Who loses? How many 16 -24 year olds do you know who cannot even find temporary jobs at present, despite being willing to do anything that’s going? The graduate loses out because she is not increasing her experience in an area remotely connected with her degree. The museum and the area lose out because having willing, intelligent and knowledgeable volunteers always increases the vibrancy and viability of the business. Ultimately the country loses out because we have made years of investment in the education of a person, with the understanding that someone with a degree will, in the long term, improve the cultural, intellectual and economic wealth of the nation. Isn’t that the the social pact of investing in higher education?
We have to welcome the current positive focus on volunteering, after all, our museum sector is run by volunteers (locally at least a 2:1 ratio to paid staff) but all businesses rely on positive and willing contributions, not forced and unwilling labour with inappropriate and wasteful ‘matchings’. ‘Working for free’ in this way is more likely to grow bitter, resentful people.
In Coventry and Warwickshire many museums are keen to work with government programmes to offer placements and volunteering opportunities to the unwaged, whether they are graduates or not. However, even the largest of us may not have the capacity needed to register as a ‘significant’ destination for the Benefits office. Individually, and in small consortia, museums locally are working to offer a good deal for all volunteers, but while ill considered decisions, such as Cat Reilly was subject to, continue to be made, it will remain an uphill struggle for individual and museim alike.
See here for an article about this particular case: Cait Reilly: Unemployed graduate sues ministers for being ‘forced’ to work in Poundland | Mail Online.
NB This posting contains my personal opinions and does not purport to be those of my employers or funders.