Outside Edge: No more taking advantage

Voluntary sector staff are in revolt, joining unions in increasingly large numbers. And a good thing too, according to Tash Shifrin.

Around half a million people work in the voluntary sector these days. That's not far off one in 100 of the total population, and probably a couple of per cent of the working population.

Yet low pay and insecurity blight the lives of many voluntary sector workers. For years - decades even - this was seen as part of the deal.

Staff were expected to accept poverty and insecurity out of deep commitment to the organisation and its cause.

It is not clear where the commitment-equals-low-pay equation originates.

The shoestring finances of many voluntary organisations offer one starting point. Or perhaps the beginnings lie in some semi-religious notion of sacrifice.

Maybe it is a legacy of the grand old days of 19th-century philanthropy and paternalistic charity, when the benevolent few who condescended to aid the poor could afford to do so as a leisure activity.

But times have changed. The sector is now a different beast. Its leaders point to its size and increasing professionalisation. And, for better or worse, charities are now embedded in the delivery of public services.

Economists, especially those at the Treasury, are starting to reckon up the voluntary sector's contribution to the GDP.

Voluntary sector staff are waking up to this, and they are organising.

Although union membership has traditionally been low in the sector, it is rocketing. Of the 11,000 new members recruited by the huge union Amicus last year, 4,000 came from the voluntary and community sector alone.

Unison is seeing dramatic growth too, with an 8 per cent jump in voluntary sector membership last year and a 15 per cent increase in the number of stewards. Unison's membership in the voluntary sector has soared by nearly half - 46 per cent - since 2001.

The shop steward figures are important too. They show an increase in the workplace organisation that is crucial to ensuring unions can actually do something for their members. This is starting to be reflected in recognition agreements that give unions bargaining rights over pay and conditions, such as that between Unison and Barnardo's for around 6,000 staff.

The third big union in the sector, the T&G's ACTS section, has bargaining rights at such household names as Age Concern, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Shelter.

The rise in unionisation is a good thing. With the voluntary sector's new status, it is no longer adequate to take advantage of hugely committed staff, pay them peanuts and expect them to fall nobly on their P45s when finances are tight.

Staff are a crucial, precious asset. Their contribution deserves to be decently rewarded. Unions offer a safeguard, and a way for workers to press their claims when they need to.

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