HOT ISSUE: Are charity sector employers exploiting their workforces?

Limited resources, high ideals and time constraints can sometimes lead third sector organisations to treat their employees unfairly without even realising it, according to Roger Lyons, joint general secretary of Amicus. Last week, the union unveiled a new eight-point charter to try to protect charity sector staff.

Paul Canal, managing director, Charity People and Forum3


An outrageous suggestion! The non-profit sector remains at the forefront of good employment practice. Valuing individuals is a core ethos of the sector. The non-profit sector was among the first to embrace diversity, actively addressing inequality and issues of access.

Non-profit employers have also taken the lead in the work-life balance debate. The sector advocated and implemented effective 'family-friendly' policies long before they hit the statute books. Paternity leave, sabbatical breaks, job sharing - all were established in the charity sector long before they were mooted in the private sector.

Sector umbrella bodies such as NCVO and ACEVO actively support best employment practice. This is underpinned by the outstanding individual commitment of employees to the causes for which they work. This is a quality often lacking in the private sector and a quality that creates an effective partnership between employees and employers - a partnership that helps prevent exploitation.

John Jackson, director, Burma Campaign UK


Some organisations take advantage of their staff's commitment by paying low wages and expecting them to work long hours. Others exploit their workers through neglect and by failing to tackle the self-exploitation of staff willing to work long hours and take on extra responsibilities.

At the Burma Campaign UK, our problem is not making sure staff are working all their hours, but that they are not working too many.

The culture of overworking in the third sector is a dangerous one for both staff and organisations. Tired staff are less efficient and can make mistakes. Poor management in the third sector can lead to employees working extra hours then feeling it is not appreciated, and they become demoralised or burn out. Where overworking is the norm, staff may worry that leaving work on time suggests they are less committed to their job, or worse, that they are less committed to the issue.

Just because some organisations ignore the issue, or are not even aware of it, does not mean the exploitation is not happening.

Chris Walsh, director, Wise Owls Employment Agency


The voluntary sector is no worse than other employers. In our experience, it tends to pay rates towards the bottom end of the market because of funding constraints, but the market dictates that employers need to pay reasonable salaries in order to stop staff shortages.

In terms of general conditions, charities and voluntary organisations are more likely to have accommodation issues, such as a lack of air conditioning and cramped conditions, because they often operate from low-cost premises.

However, the voluntary sector is now much more aware than the private sector of equality and health and safety requirements. This may be because the Government insists on certain standards as a pre-requisite to awarding grants.

To some degree it must be remembered that workers still see the voluntary sector as the most satisfactory form of employment.

We have also found that the voluntary sector is less 'ageist' than the public and private sectors. However, one of the big contradictions from our perspective of working with older workers is that voluntary sector agencies whose primary client group is over 50 do not practise age diversity.

Peter Little, Amicus representative at Save the Children


Like all organisations, employers such as Save the Children need to manage staff well to get good results. For Save the Children, this means working towards a better world for children. Save the Children faces the added challenge of having a hugely committed workforce. Management need to safeguard them from the risk of working excessive hours and becoming so stressed that a good work-life balance seems beyond reach.

Amicus has a clear role to play, promoting protective and fair employment policies that enable staff to contribute effectively without burning out.

A big challenge is to ensure that managers implement these policies. It is also important that the manager's personal commitment and drive doesn't result in staff feeling exploited and taken for granted.

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