Outside Edge: The downside of volunteering

Cracks are starting to appear in volunteering's perfect image of happy helpers giving cost-free commitment, writes Nick Cater.

As we enter Volunteers Week, the recent flurry of legal cases involving volunteers produced some real worries.

These were often difficult cases unlikely to affect most charities, since on the whole volunteers possess few - if any - employment rights. But they did reveal some of volunteering's problems, from the tensions between staff and volunteers to poor management, whether of the volunteer or of their expectations.

I recall being contacted by a professionally skilled volunteer who claimed to have been given a strong hint, after long hours and hard work, that they would be in pole position for the next paid job. Instead, the job went, unadvertised, to a friend of the manager involved. The volunteer, who was also convinced that race might have played a part in the decision, could see no way to launch a legal challenge.

Typical? Perhaps not, but given the legal barriers to such cases, as well as the personal cost, stress and disruption, those coming forward to the courts can only represent the tip of an iceberg of discontent and mismanagement. How many more volunteers who preferred to keep quiet or walk away does each one of these cases represent? 100? 1,000?

Perhaps Amicus, or another of the unions recruiting in the charity sector, should take an interest in volunteers. But this seems unlikely, given their difficulty in recruiting the average overworked, underpaid charity staffer - even when their job security depends on the next fickle grant or government contract and they can expect only a pittance of a pension.

Since volunteers cannot access the conciliation service Acas, what about a small levy on volunteer-using charities to pay for an independent arbitration service, so volunteers need not depend on in-house managers acting as judge, jury and executioner in disputes?

At a time when the public sector is encouraging the offloading of mainstream responsibilities onto charities - leisure services yesterday, prisons today, hospitals tomorrow? - the added value of the voluntary sector may not be its skills, but the cheap and free labour it offers that can be sacrificed to cut the public sector borrowing requirement.

There seems too little concern that unfettered volunteering may also put at risk simple standards and basic quality control in public services, such as the need to improve cleanliness to tackle the hospital superbug MRSA. Is it really better to have armies of volunteers in every ward, comforting patients while trekking in opportunistic infections?

But let's not go too far. Surely no one in government or the sector wants to give the impression that they welcome more volunteers to help hack away at the public sector while intimidating the unions and depressing both public and charity wage rates?

Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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