Is it exploitation or value added work experience?

by Phoebe Churches


So far my thinking about how to sustainably develop the capacity of a tiny CLC in a constantly contracting funding environment has led me to confront my fears of contributing to the decline of the modern welfare state. My next question in this context, is whether a volunteering model must necessarily further the destabilisation of the Government backed welfare system, or whether there is a legitimate place for ‘free labour’ in capacity building.

I practiced as a social worker for some 25 years prior to entering the legal world and during that time I did my fair share of supervising social work students on fieldwork placements in various work places. The idea of getting another pair of hands on deck was always exciting in a chronically under-resourced community sector. However over time it became apparent that significant resources are required to deliver the level of supervision and support to enable a proper and positive learning experience for these students. Sometimes it meant that, rather than building capacity, a single vocational placement could consume about the same resources as it provided to the service. How to avoid this zero sum game? How do we get something for nothing without the spectre of exploitation coming into the frame?

I have come to the conclusion that it is the use of unpaid labour to provide work which would otherwise be undertaken by the same person for money, given the opportunity – which is exploitative. Roemer defines capitalist exploitation as ‘A is exploited by B when B takes unfair advantage of A’s situation which results from a lack of access to resources’. Translated into the legal volunteering scenario we might say that a CLC exploits its unpaid staff when they attract the unpaid labour due to a lack of opportunities or access to entry level paid positions in the same sector.

Similarly Susan J. Ellis in her book From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement – without ever mentioning the ‘exploitation’ word – recommends that an organisation contemplating taking on volunteers must ask itself:

given such a “utopia” in which your organization could pay for anything needed, would you still involve volunteers in some way and, if so, why?

This is, of course, not the only definition of exploitation – but it nevertheless serves as a reasonable method of distinguishing those who volunteer altruistically and/or to receive something in return (feels good, experience, education etc) and those who are effectively trapped into free labour.

So using unpaid workers – either volunteers or interns – who only provide their labour for nix in the hope that they will land a paid gig at some point AND where there is no possibility of that eventuating would seem to be flat out exploitation.

Accordingly, where students or very new graduates completing their PLT are not in a position to do the same work for remuneration – is it exploitation to use their unpaid labour? Is money the only type of exchange for labour? They get experience and a range of benefits in return for their efforts; however we must take care to ensure that labour and non-salary benefits stay in balance.

What is needed to make volunteering a positive and value-added experience for the volunteer?

The University of Melbourne Student Union Advocacy Service runs two very active student volunteer programs. One provides an exam support stall which delivers material support (including stationery, water, chuppa chups and calculators) and advice and referral (for students who turn up late and are denied entrance to the exam or who have been caught with unauthorised materials). This program makes a material difference for students at the remote Royal Exhibition Building examination venue who otherwise would have no access to such resources. The other volunteer program provides peer support for students facing the university’s Course Unsatisfactory Progress Committees (CUPC). These student volunteers undertake training to enhance their understanding of the CUPC system so they can brief students attending the hearings and take meaningful notes in the meetings as well as provide a level of emotional support to the students attending, who are frequently highly anxious and/or distressed. The small Advocacy Service – without a major injection of funding – could never provide these services to this extent without volunteers.

What’s interesting about both of these volunteer programs is that they attract a very large number of students every semester, notably many international students and also those who may be shy or somewhat socially isolated. These students get both hands on training and direct personal experience of conversing with strangers; communicating sometimes complex information simply and accessibly and empathically dealing with often quite confronting emotions in others. This is a very rare and valuable opportunity for these students, and one they generally grasp with both hands. Additionally, the volunteers work together, in different teams and pairs and many form lasting friendships after the program. For international students wishing to forge cross cultural relationships and socially isolated domestic students who may find it difficult to meet others in day to day student life – this experience is often a turning point.

Can we offer something to law students in a clinical setting which might offer the same benefits? Or else, what other experiential currency can we trade in to ensure their unpaid efforts are not exploitative?

Next time: Value added volunteering – Clinical Legal Education; internships or volunteers – what’s the difference and how do they compare as models?