A central element of the Big Society debate has been the role of volunteering in providing services.
One non-religious charity which draws particularly heavily on volunteers is Oxfam, with its highly successful network of bookshops largely run by volunteer staff. It is not unusual for there to be one paid manager running a busy shop, with the rest of the staff being volunteers. If that manager is away the shop will be entirely run by volunteers.
The variety of staff employed by an Oxfam bookshop also nicely illustrates some of the issues around volunteering. First, there is the retired person, living on a reasonable pension, looking for something to do to fill their time. They take on the volunteering job and enjoy the experience.
Next is the person, who cannot find work, they will be receiving a benefit from the state while working a number of hours for Oxfam. Taken to an extreme, this could be seen as the state subsidising Oxfam. Between these two positions come a plethora of situations from students to mums and dads who may want to keep their hands in for a few hours between child minding duties. The looming question ofcourse must be why does a charity devoted to reducing poverty and suffering in the world not feel able to at least pay the minimum wage to those working in its shops? They would no doubt claim lower labour costs in the shops, enables more money to be sent out to poorer people in other parts of the world but is that justified?
Oxfam is not alone in using volunteer labour, many charities use volunteers in their offices. This is often justified on the basis of leading to a full time paid job in the longer term. Beyond the charities there has been the debate about MPs interns. All of these areas offer examples of people volunteering to work for nothing.
Taking this analysis onto the Big Society, another element has to be added. This involves the case of the person put out of work due to cuts but whose role has been taken by a volunteer. This is the most costly form of volunteering because the person put out of the job may now be on benefits. Potentially the volunteer who has replaced them may also be on benefits and volunteering for a set period of time. Then there is the training cost of replacing a skilled worker with a volunteer. This also raises the question of what happens if the volunteer then finds paid employment and leaves.
So the whole question of volunteering is nothing like as simple as it has been portrayed by the proponents of the Big Society. The public relations spin put on this idea is that of the middle class person able to give up a few hours a week to volunteer at their local library or some other public service. The hidden costs are not acknowledged, even for this mythical person with time on their hands there could be unseen impacts on family life.
Volunteering costs, it is not as simple as replacing paid employment with someone who will do it for nothing. The real concern about the Big Society is that it is all about a variant of volunteers replacing paid workers. It does not value the work of those being replaced and seeks only to make savings on public services.
This is not ofcourse to say that volunteering should be banned. Offering to do some worthwhile tasks for the good of society is a laudable aim but it is when volunteering becomes part of some overall scheme to exploit that the problems arise.
It is a very basic right to receive a wage for work done. Not paying a person for their labour costs somewhere along the line, whether it’s the Oxfam shop or the volunteer run library.