Thursday, July 25, 2013

Working for Free

There is a recent, quickly growing movement among freelancers to withdraw unpaid labor. Others have well and extensively written about this, including Ed Ward and Suzanne Moore. Barney Hoskyns facebook group called Stop Working for Free is quickly gaining membership. This is mostly driven by freelance journalists, musicians and other “creatives” (sorry, Ed) who have had to watch helplessly over the last decade as the products of their labor became freely available online content, with no accountable monetary value attached.

Working for free - nothing new to those of us in the nonprofit sector, where for a long time now the nonprofit poverty mentality has condoned exploiting and glorifying free labor. We call it volunteerism.

For example, my favorite nonprofit news source, the Nonprofit Quarterly, (itself a nonprofit organization) recently proudly announced additional writers who are volunteers. Sure, more writers add to the diversity and interest of the publication, but should NPQ be all that proud? To me, volunteer writers, along with the annual NPQ fundraising panic, show that NPQ, formerly a paper subscription magazine, still has not found a sustainable business model in the internet economy.

But the worst system of exploitation might be the much lauded AmeriCorps, and its related programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Disclaimer: I am a known perpetuator of volunteerism. I started the AmeriCorps Program for Southwest New Mexico. In 2011/12 we “utilized” a VISTA volunteer at the Nonprofit Resource Center I directed. I have contracted with the New Mexico Commission on Community Volunteerism (that’s the state entity administering the federal AmeriCorps Programs), helping the Commission to get the word out to rural communities about its mission. In 2013 I did the presentation on the history of national service to hundreds of new “Members” at the statewide AmeriCorps launch conference. I helped found the Volunteer Center in Grant County. I was a member of the Silver City Rotary Club, with the motto ‘Service Above All”. Most people congratulate me on all those things. I am not so sure right now.

I see the merits of AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps graduates are believed to be on a straight pathway to employment or more education. They gain workplace skills and confidence. Civic engagement is a great thing, developing young people into empowered, engaged participants in their community. (Except….they can’t really participate in the political process, since AmeriCorps programs have very strong limitations on “lobbying”). Many members address real needs and get things done (Although there is no good impact data on the program, just outputs and a lot of feel good anecdotes).The education award is a nice little carrot, but it hasn’t kept up with exploding cost of college education. It’s a drop in the bucket.

VISTA, specifically, was created in the 60ies as part of the War on Poverty. But by sustaining an economy of cheap/free labor, aren’t we creating more poverty? VISTAs are not allowed to have any employment income during their year of service. They subsist on about $900/month. Which is why I always, happily, paid for every coffee and lunch of our VISTAs, because there was no way they could afford it. Likewise, AmeriCorps member living stipends are just above poverty level.

Really what we are doing by promoting instead-of-work-volunteerism and encouraging unpaid labor of all kinds is creating precarious employment situations for more people. We sustain a labor market, in which it is ok not to pay workers, or pay them very little.

This is especially prevalent, ironically, in the social sector. For example, nonprofits that engage AmeriCorps members are not supposed to supplant their employed positions with members. Everyone who has ever worked with or for National Service programs knows that that’s bullshit. Members are cheap labor, and a way for nonprofits to save scarce budget dollars. And often, unfortunately, an excuse for nonprofit leadership to justify low quality, fragmented services, lackluster resource development and shaky sustainability of programs. Members turn over after a year, when the organization could have gotten 3-5 years out of the professional who really should have performed the job. And I have seen many a member who, lacking the supervision and support needed to do a good job, just spent their hours playing pool or who quit early. Strangely, I couldn’t find any aggregate data on the National Service website on member retention rates. They probably suck.

Being a postwar West-German, I have always had a hard time with the military flavor of AmeriCorps. Swearing in ceremonies, uniform clothing, creating a group identity, getting things done! All the shirts and spirited slogans do not change the fact that we are creating more people in poverty.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence: In post-war western Germany, civic service (Zivildienst) was the alternative to getting drafted into the military. In 2009 for example, over 90,000 young men conscientiously objected to military service and instead spent 12 -15 months changing bedpans in nursing homes, or working with young children, disabled people and at-risk youth. Then in 2011, military draft ended, and so did Zivildienst. Now young people can participate in Soziales oder kologisches Freiwilliges Jahr, (a volunteer year working on a social or ecological project) and people of all ages can join the new Bundesfreiwilligendienst (Federal Volunteer Service, known as Bufdi). The latter was created to keep the cheap labor flowing to the social sector. 35,000 people joined in 2011, the first year. Service pays 200 E/month. AmeriCorps members are wealthy compared to that!

In German, Volunteer translates to “Freiwilliger”, but another term, “Ehrenamtliche” is used as well – that means something like honorary officer. It changes the meaning somewhat – and I think here lies the crux of the issue. If you are a volunteer these days, here or in the US, the term seems to imply a voluntary choice to engage in service. But what if you live in an impoverished community and there are no alternatives?

An honorary officer, on the other hand, may be understood as more of a donor – I am thinking of Rotary Club members – someone who donates their time, in addition to, or instead of money. Maybe when we talk about volunteers it would be helpful to start distinguishing between donors and precarious employees.

Bringing this argument home: after 20 years, I am coming back to a drastically changed labor economy in Germany, and I need work. But many paid jobs have been replaced with internships and other fancily titled but unpaid employment relationships. There is the 400 Euro job, the Praktikum, paid and unpaid internships, Bufdi etc. Before any degreed person can land a real job, apparently she/he is expected to go through several unpaid gigs, gaining experience and building a resume. I am approaching 50, but have a blank employment history here. Should I participate in this precarious economy? A recent article in the Atlantic rebuffs the notion that internships are worth the while for college graduates in the US. Unpaid internships do not help when it comes to getting job offers.

The AmeriCorps program we started in southwest NM is now shrinking, due to sequestered funding. The Grant County Volunteer Center leadership has realized some years ago that matching volunteers with needs is an activity, but not a mission, and has moved on to the important mission of eradicating poverty and hunger. I expect to see the organization’s name change shortly. Meanwhile, I am looking for work in Germany, and pondering whether I should offer to work for free for a while, in order to get my foot in door. But what if the foot remains all I ever get in the door?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hold on and hold out, Nikki. It's my experience that employers look at volunteers in one of two ways: They will want to hire you for almost-no money because you've already proven you will work for nothing --- OR ---they won't hire you at all. Volunteers(according to some business HR groups)must be undesirable/problematic/ poor performers in some way otherwise they'd be making money, right? Be patient, be persistent, make somebody pay you what you are worth.