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?

Hegel’s Dilemma and the creation of the welfare state

by Phoebe Churches

brick wall

The German philosopher Hegel argued in Elements of the Philosophy of Right that all members of civil society are owed a duty by the state to protect their moral equality. In fact modern liberal democracies are characterised by the fundamental principle that their citizens should be equal.

Yet how can this be when some citizens clearly have more money, more opportunity and more resources than others? Well, the Government needs to help level the playing field, of course.

Enter the modern welfare state. This compromise of socialist and liberal values was probably more about avoiding open class conflict than solving Hegel’s dilemma but – until recently at least – all developed nations have also been welfare states to a greater or lesser degree.

What happened?

Neo-Liberal Economic Policies and the destabilisation of the welfare state

Hegel’s classic liberal democratic welfare state has buckled under the weight of neo-liberal economic policies. Increasingly across developed nations market forces have displaced citizen’s rights to equality. The state has unburdened itself of its welfare responsibilities in favour of market forces and I suggest that this now poses a crucial test of the legitimacy of the modern state into the 21st century.

In the UK David Cameron’s conservative government has introduced the notion of the ‘big society’– a policy framework which has also been referenced by Tony Abbott in Australia. Effectively the outcomes in the UK of ‘big society’ have been – among other things – that in excess of 60,000 public servants have lost their jobs, overall income inequality has grown exponentially and – very relevantly to this issue – there has been a greater than ever burden on volunteers to provide services previously provided by paid staff funded by government.

This type of neo-liberalism ultimately inspires an individualist and depoliticised construction of volunteering. ‘Big society’ style policies consign civic responsibility to the individual citizen – predominantly those willing or forced to volunteer their labour to assisting the disadvantaged. By plugging the gaps left by government people are diverted from the dismantling of the welfare state that ensues when austerity – or in the case of our recent budget – ‘deficit crisis’ banners are hoisted by the government.

So what does this mean for access to justice? Dennis Nelthorpe is Executive Director of Footscray CLC and has many years of experience in the access-to-justice game has suggested that at any given time, on a conservative estimate, around 500 000 Australians are unable to access legal assistance primarily because of the cost. So we are not covering the field on accessible legal services by a long stretch. Yet what does the Government contribute? Dennis provides the following illustration:

Using a commonly stated figure of $250 per hour to value legal work, if we apply this to just one Melbourne CLC where I work, the output of paid legal staff is $3.8 million and volunteer lawyers and pro bono contributions account for an extra $525,000 each year.

This CLC gets around $750,000 in government funding, plus $250,000 from other sources, and yet on these figures deliver four times that amount in legal services alone – not to mention the legal education and law reform services that most CLCS provide on top of that.

The Productivity Commission in its draft report into Access to Justice Arrangements in Australia notes that a number of issues may present particular challenges for people in accessing legal assistance, including language, cultural background, socio-economic circumstances, poor literacy and education or mental and physical wellbeing. Unfortunately it is also true that many of the same people will also be at increased risk of experiencing legal problems and/or they may have more complex needs spanning criminal and civil issues.

In the face of this unmet need and the furious back peddling of the Government away from taking responsibility for assisting these individuals to uphold their legal rights and resolve their civil disputes – how do we plug the gap?

Next time: Volunteering: Altruism, valuable experience or exploitation?
Last time: Volunteering and access to justice – the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Volunteering and Access to Justice – the good, the bad and the ugly

by Phoebe Churches

volunteer scrabble

I manage the Advocacy and Legal division of the University of Melbourne Student Union which includes a very small Community Legal Centre (CLC). When I say ‘very small’ – it is in fact a single solicitor and a legal secretary.

For a number of reasons over the last 12 months I have been contemplating the politics of volunteering. Firstly, I am just completing my Practical Legal Training (PLT) which involves a good amount of free labour in my current workplace. This sort of quasi-volunteering can create a tension between free labour and paid work which I would like to tease out. Secondly, on a fortnightly basis I volunteer at my local CLC which is almost completely dependent on volunteers to deliver its services to the magnitude it does. Thirdly I am very keen to build capacity with the tiny CLC I manage and, to this end, with a small and very fixed budget – I have been comparing the various models which provide legal assistance to those who have varying capacities to pay – volunteer driven services and self-funded models.

Self-funded services are a very attractive idea – people who cannot afford legal assistance are provided it for free funded by the profit generated by fee-paying services to individuals and organisations who can pay. Naturally this presents a challenge, and while self-funded services such as Salvos Legal are proof of concept – there is little doubt that it is a tricky balancing act at best.

The other option is volunteer supported expansion. Being located on a university campus with Australia’s premiere law school, one may expect that the academics would be beating a path to our door to negotiate arrangements to deliver clinical legal education via our service. This is the model used at Sunshine Youth Legal Centre (SYLC) – where the Victoria University law school delivers its clinical legal education program via the centre which is totally operated by those students under supervision.

However The Melbourne Law School does not operate a clinical legal education program in a CLC setting at this point in time. For this reason we are moving down the path to expansion with plans for a small intake of volunteer latter law students (from any university) by the end of the year.

Seems straight forward enough – eh?

Yes…well, no. As someone who has worked in the community not-for-profit sector more virtually all of my working life and as a dyed in the wool trade unionist – the politics of volunteering has always sat uneasily with me.

There are two aspects to my misgivings. Firstly the problem of continuing to deliver more and more welfare-state functions with fewer and fewer Government resources. It seems, the more we do for less, the more the Government gets away with slipping out the back door and making a run for it. In this context and for this reason – I am wondering if volunteers are left in the kitchen doing the washing up while the Government is happily skipping the bill.

Secondly, when people work for nothing doing the very similar things that others do for remuneration – there are a number of questions which need to be answered.

Next time: Post#2 – Volunteering and the demise of the welfare state