I was at Scotland’s annual voluntary sector event ‘The Gathering’ today, speaking at a session on volunteering.
A number of speakers highlighted changes in volunteering in recent years together with the different types of volunteers. While many people are still prepared to volunteer there are huge challenges for the sector.
I reflected on some of those in my contribution. UNISON has some 4000 volunteer activists in Scotland who represent our 160,000 members. While unions have professional staff like me, the backbone of the trade union movement is still built on volunteers.
The pressures on volunteering are similar in trade unions as elsewhere. Longer hours, presenteeism and cuts in real wages make it difficult to find the time or the energy to undertake voluntary activity if you do a full time job. On the other hand the loss of 51,000 public sector jobs in Scotland since the crash, means there are plenty of workers who have finished work early who have the skills and the time to volunteer. Volunteering is often a valuable way of making the psychological transition.
While the Big Society has rightly been seen for the sham it is in Scotland, we should be aware of the challenges when volunteering and paid work exists side by side. Particularly since the development of a more commercial approach in some parts of voluntary sector in response to procurement practice.
There are protocols between the trade union movement and the voluntary sector in Scotland that recognise this tension. These are set out in the Volunteering Charter agreed in 2011 between Volunteering Development Scotland and the STUC. This charter recognises the value of volunteering and sets out common principles including mutuality.
The practical measures include recognition that volunteering is undertaken by choice. A principle that is being undermined by UK Government workfare measures. Volunteers should not normally be paid other than reasonable expenses and should complement not displace paid staff or undercut their pay. They should also not be used to reduce contract costs, instead they should be used to supplement the service through additionality. A number of contributions and the straw poll indicated that many in the sector fear that volunteers are likely to used to plug the gap caused by spending cuts.
Volunteers should also be supported, trained, and operate in a safe working environment in the same way as paid staff. There should also be machinery for the resolution of any problems between paid staff and volunteers and not be used to undertake the work of paid staff during industrial disputes.
A discussion with a number of colleagues in the sector confirmed my view that these principles are under great pressure and perhaps now is the time to review the Charter.
So there are clearly pressures and opportunities to develop volunteering in Scotland. But those same pressures mean that we must manage the relationship between volunteering and paid work carefully if volunteers are to be nurtured not exploited.