With public sector cuts looming and charities struggling to cope with the recession, this might not be the best time to consider a career in the charity sector, according to Rachael Maskell, national officer for the community and not-for-profit sector at trade union Unite.
"We are getting reports of bullying, stress and appalling work-life balance," she says. "Some people are calling us to say they are being made to work six days a week for 12 hours a day."
The extra hours are often being worked for no extra money, and workers across the sector fear they will be sacked if they speak out, says Maskell. The buzz phrase being used to describe this situation is 'work intensification' - "getting more for less", as Maskell puts it. "In reality, it means fewer people, and less money being spent on wages," she says.
This puts enormous pressure on staff and causes bullying and stress, says Maskell. The charity sector is not alone in this: councils, health trusts and businesses are all facing similar workforce issues. But other changes to the charity sector, such as more government contracting, have left charity employees among the hardest hit.
"Many charities now rely on government contracts to provide services," she says. "In this way, the sector has been opened up to competition like never before. In order to win the contracts, costs are being cut and charities are constantly looking for savings."
Another factor is that, in times of recession, demands on charities increase and funding gets tighter. "This is particularly bad for the front-line workers, whose skills are being stretched further," says Maskell.
The disparity in wages is greater in the voluntary sector than in much of the public sector, she says. "Some charities try to offer the same wage structure as local government and health trusts, but there are many others that do not," she says. "The disparity is particularly bad for those at the bottom of the pile - people on the minimum wage. Those in more senior roles have seen a percentage increase in recent years."
Unite has launched a campaign called Putting You First to raise awareness of the poor pay and conditions she says are blighting the sector. The campaign focuses on workplace issues such as bullying, harassment and job security, and will call for a more intense focus on employees' entitlement to training, career development and a good work-life balance.
Only a quarter of charity staff belong to a union, so Maskell admits that Unite can change little on its own. Genuine change and improvements in working conditions will be brought about only through joint action by employers, unions and sector representatives, she says.
"The Government is happy to employ charities, but equally happy to let them handle their own wage structures, which are poor in many cases," she says. "Employers need to stand up to the Government and say that they deserve more money for contracts so they can give their staff a better deal. Charities have for too long been seen as a cheaper option than the public sector and businesses - and that needs to end."