Voluntarism or new slavery?

Voluntarism is usually defined as the use of, or reliance on, voluntary action to maintain an institution or carry out a policy. An increasing number of scholars and writers, however, distinguish between ‘voluntarism’ and ‘volunteerism’ in that the latter involves formal structures. While voluntary organisations may employ paid staff and receive funding, what distinguishes them from private companies -at least in theory- is that they are meant to act for the public good, rather than in shareholders’ benefit. Traditionally, volunteering and voluntary work were associated with affluent philanthropic ‘do-gooders’. In reality, however, things are much more blurred and complex.


Voluntary Turn

The definition of the ‘third sector’ has been stretched so as to include private and profit-seeking companies, as well as charitable organisations. Many of the non-profit organisations involved in employment services, such as training and work experience, are not local community groups in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they are large bureaucratic organisations, barely distinguishable from any company or government department in terms of structure, hierarchy and budget. Many charity shops now have a paid manager instead of volunteers, with head offices run by overpaid managers. In fact, most charity shops have become little more than profit-making enterprises, just like any other commercial shop. The only difference, perhaps, is that charity shops still capitalise on old values associated with charity and voluntary work; values that are based primarily on a Christian paternalistic approach to ‘others’, which is problematic in itself, but that’s another story.

A central tenet of New Labour’s ‘third way’ ideology, which has become rooted in many Western countries, is the belief that, while the state and the market have a ‘legitimate’ role to play in the provision of social welfare, community and voluntary organisations could, or should, also play a role too. This incorporation of the ‘third sector’ into the state apparatus, which had already started with the neoliberal project in the context of its attack on the postwar welfare state, has led to a massive growth of what some have called ‘government volunteerism’, with the government setting the volunteering agenda and playing an increasing role in creating the environment in which voluntary action takes place. Examples range from unemployment programmes to the Olympics.

While some would still argue that a more prominent role for the third sector is a good thing, by ‘bridging the gap’ between the state and the market and between the government and society, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that this “institutional fix”, as some commentators have described it, has enabled the state to protect its legitimacy and maintain its control, while avoiding responsibility and cutting costs under the guises of ‘flexibility’ and ‘innovation’. What’s more, this steady encroach by government on voluntary and community organisations, through such mechanisms as government contracts and partnerships, has managed to ‘professionalise’ many of these organisations, with all the usual political side effects: closing down any scope for real, radical change or state-critical thought, much like the corporate philanthropy of big foundations has done with other organisations and social movements. Jennifer Wolch calls this “para-state apparatus” that carries out welfare state functions the “shadow state”, while others have dubbed the process the “voluntary” or “community turn.”


Free labour

In this ‘mixed welfare’ economy, the boundaries between voluntarism and formal employment are increasingly blurred. One of four options offered to ‘job seekers’ on New Deal, after they had been on the programme for four weeks (the so-called Gateway phase), is working with a contracted voluntary or community organisation to gain ‘work experience’. The option could last for up to 26 weeks if the person does not find a job, and failure to attend may result is them loosing their benefits. This can hardly be called ‘voluntary’.

According to DWP statistics, between January 1998, when the programme started, and the end of November 2006, 1,090,270 people had left New Deal for Young People. Of these, 194,330, or 38 percent, chose or were put on the ‘voluntary sector’ option - the highest number of participants among the four options. In those eight years, almost £5 billion was spent on New Deal programmes, almost half of which was spent on New Deal for Young People, between administrative and programme expenditure. So a substantial amount of money has been spent on the voluntary option over the years (close to £1 billion in that period), split between the prime contractors, subcontractors and providers.
New Deal voluntary sector providers and the amounts received from the DWP in the financial year 2008-9

Provider Spend 08-09
BTCV (3 Contracts) £9,600,986
Careers Development Group (3 Contracts) £12,150,224
Claverhouse Training £12,234,909
Community Links £2,424,018
CSV Training (2 Contracts) £681,724
Norfolk and Waveney Enterprise Agency £1,728,986
Scout Enterprises £2,093,827
SCVO £1,743,260
Shaw Trust £57,348,958
SOVA £836,865
The Wise Group (7 Contracts) £9,307,974
Track 2000 £133,277
Tydfil Training Consortium £1,133,847
Voluntary Action Vale Royal £243,806
Volunteer Cornwall £0
YMCA Training £57,501,044

Voluntary option work placements are typically charity shops or community and youth centres, where participants are meant to gain work experience in retail, admin and other ‘skills’. These work placements are often arranged through voluntary or community organisations contracted or subcontracted by Jobcentre Plus. Last year, the DWP had contracts with 51 different organisations from the private and voluntary sectors for the delivery of New Deal provision. Among these were YMCA Training, BTCV (formerly British Trust for Conservation Volunteers), Careers Development Group, Community Service Volunteers (CSV Training - apparently the UK’s largest volunteering and training charity), the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and SOVA, a national ‘volunteer mentoring’ programme working with people leaving the care system, young offenders and migrants (see page 11 for the number and value of their contracts).

The largest voluntary contractor in terms of the number of contracts was The Wise Group, with 7 contracts receiving £9,307,974 in 2008-9. Over the past two and half decades, the Scottish charity has grown from a small training project in Glasgow to a “professional enterprise” operating across central Scotland and north east England. In 2007, it generated an annual turnover of £21 million, employed 420 people and operated from 26 premises, providing employment-focused services for 3,654 clients. Commenting on the several fat government contracts it holds, the group describes itself as follows: “As a Third Sector organisation, the Wise Group is a business that reinvests any surplus for the good of the community and future of the company. In effect, the Wise Group was operating as a social enterprise long before the term was in common parlance.”

Many participants on the NDYP Voluntary option, as well as those on the Environment Task Force option, do not receive a wage and are, thus, not covered by the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. These participants are paid a New Deal allowance equivalent to their Job Seeker’s Allowance, plus a grant of £400 paid over the 26 weeks of the programme. Thus, a participant doing a 4-6-hour shift, four days a week, for up to 26 weeks, receives little more than the basic minimum that he or she should be getting anyway. Now imagine a charity shop or some community project that is used by Jobcentre Plus as a work placement for New Deal participants. They get a constant flood of technically free labour and some even get paid for accepting them.

As discussed in other articles in this issue, the Welfare Reform Bill and Flexible New Deal took this even further with the idea that people who have been on benefits for a certain period of time should be forced to do mandatory work experience in order to continue receiving their benefits. Other less known ‘slave labour’ schemes have been tried in the past. A few years ago, for instance, the Home Office tried out a pilot scheme in Merseyside under which refused asylum seekers would be forced to do unpaid ‘community service’ (degrading, menial tasks in most cases) in return for accommodation while they waited to be deported. YMCA, which was to carry out the scheme on behalf of the government, eventually dropped it following a public outcry. Nonetheless, the word ‘voluntary’ is still being used in the organisation’s promotional literature to describe such schemes.

In light of the increasing commercialisation and professionalisation of charities and other so-called voluntary organisations, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to argue that their loss of legitimacy among their traditional supporters makes many of them keen on accepting ‘volunteers’ from such programmes as New Deal. A recent survey by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) revealed that donations to charities in 2008 fell by 11%. At the same time, figures from the Charity Finance’s Charity Shops Survey 2009, which questioned over 5,000 UK charity shops, show that their profits rose by 4.1% over the same year.

No criteria

Choosing the voluntary or community organisations used by Jobcentre Plus as work placements is entirely up to private agencies contracted to provide mandatory or voluntary training programmes. In response to a Freedom of Information request by Corporate Watch last year, Jobcentre Plus admitted it “do[es] not hold information [on] those community and voluntary organisations that they [contracted agencies] work with.” Furthermore, Jobcentre Plus does not apparently have any criteria for selecting or assessing such organisations as “it is the providers’ responsibility to set and apply the criteria used to select the organisations.”

However, media reports last year revealed that the DWP was running a £8m ‘volunteer brokerage scheme’, with contracted charities, such as BTCV and CSV, competing to get local volunteer centres to arrange placements for them in return for 10 percent of the funding they receive for the task from government. Under the scheme, the prime contractors would get between £130-200 for each New Deal participant they matched with a volunteering placement, but would offer volunteer centres as little as £20 or £30 for each volunteer they accepted. It seems the concept of ‘job brokers’ has extended to volunteering too, but that should come as no surprise when voluntary work is treated as mandatory work experience.

However good and humanitarian the word ‘voluntary’ might sound, voluntary organisations charged with delivering public services are less accountable than public authorities, as they often operate outside traditional democratic/bureaucratic structures – the “shadow state”, as Woch dubbed the sector. With social welfare delivery increasingly channelled through private and voluntary actors, this should raise serious concerns.



In a 2006 report commissioned by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Steve Davies of Cardiff University examined claims that ‘independent providers’ do better than existing statutory ones. He concluded that, “whenever Jobcentre Plus staff have been allowed the same flexibilities and funding as private sector companies or charitable organisations, they have been able to compete with, if not surpass, the performance of contractors.” The ‘charitisation’ of the public sector, however, serves another purpose: it is subtle privatisation, with the voluntary sector opening up services for contests, which can subsequently be won by the private sector.

The leading organisation lobbying for contracting out employment services is the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA). Although ERSA includes many long-established charities, hybrid government-charity and non-profit organisations that aim to increase their ‘market share’ of public contracts, it is dominated by private companies that make millions of pounds in profit from job brokering and training. Furthermore, many of these charities, which are increasingly dependent on government contract funding to survive, have close links - through their trustees, for example - with the business lobby, which has its own interests in opening up public sector markets.