The new unpaid work scheme supervised by the State, in other words: the squandering of voluntary work

"Voluntary Work for a stronger cv", the only thing that counts nowadays.
“Voluntary Work for a stronger cv”, the only thing that counts nowadays.
Volunteers are vital to keep a large part of society functioning. Voluntary work is crucial in the care sector, in education, in welfare, in the cultural sector, for social, sports and games activities, and more. We as volunteers give our time and energy voluntarily to make the world a little better, to build something together, and to help others. And exactly because it is voluntary we put our heart and soul into it and obtain a lot of satisfaction from it. Real voluntary work is indispensable. Real volunteering is not about profit. That is why we as volunteers will not be dancing to the tune of capitalism.

Translated by: Jet
The original text in Dutch
(May 15th, 2015)

We volunteer because not everything has to be about money, and because we want to do good things for other people and keep these things affordable. It may also be that we just want to build something together, and this is easier to do for volunteers exactly because we do not have to write impressive business plans. We meet all sorts of people, and we strengthen our social network and that of the people around us. We receive a lot in return: a feeling of gratitude, of belonging and of strength. We do this because we want to, because we see the work that we do as volunteer as something that is valuable in itself, and not as something to earn money with. For many of us it is self-evident that we work voluntarily for a better world. Our solidarity with the world around us, and the collective interest: this is what motivates our individual choice to do something voluntarily.

Economic motive

At the same time, politicians and officials are increasingly making it appear as if our individual interests should be the reason to do voluntary work. We have to invest in ourselves, learn employee skills, fill the gaps in our CVs. As workers on a flexibilised labour market we have to maintain our value on the job market by doing unpaid work when we are “between jobs”. We are told that voluntary work is a career booster and looks good on your CV. Nowadays, that is. Where formerly voluntary work was not at all important for getting a job, it has now almost become a requirement. Instead of being a goal in itself volunteering has become a step towards “real” work: paid work. Government agencies that work with jobless people literally see it that way. The “ladder of participation” has six steps towards paid work and step number four is “unpaid work”.

Nowadays we are expected to be motivated to volunteer out of our self-interest and not because of the collective interest. Of course this has not changed anything for many volunteers. Voluntary work was already part of our life and we intend to continue doing it. Of course there have always been people who considered voluntary work as a step towards a job, and an opportunity to gain experience or a network. There is nothing wrong with that at an individual level. The problem is the trend that makes voluntary work increasingly into a requirement to get a paid job. This means that it mainly has to be economically motivated and in fact it becomes part of the labour market. In this way our free development and expression are brought into commercial systems for the sake of the compelling demands of the labour market. And our choice to do voluntary work is no longer an individual choice. On the contrary, this choice is being made “collectively” at policy level. We have to do voluntary work!

Unpaid labour and squeezing out of regular jobs

Is voluntary work based on economical motivation still voluntary work? Or should we call this unpaid labour or forced labour? And volunteering is just one example in a range of schemes used for unpaid labour. For example, it is slowly becoming a normal procedure for graduates to do unpaid traineeships before they even have a chance of getting a paid job. The unemployed have to learn “employee skills” en masse in forced labour projects, also those who have been “active” in the labour market for many years. There has always been a trial period in a new job, intended to learn the work and to see if things go well for both sides. During that period an employee does not yet have the full employment entitlements but does receive a salary. Now however the trial period is sometimes preceded by an unpaid period of job shadowing, even when it concerns jobs that do not require any training but just getting someone introduced to the work. The more work is done unpaid, the more paid jobs will disappear, and generally speaking the more a paid job gets out of reach for the unemployed. All of this is taking place with full knowledge, cooperation and encouragement of the social services consultant who actually should be helping the unemployed towards a paid job. This means that they actively participate in the destruction of paid work.

The massive budget cuts that have been imposed in recent years, especially those on social services, have also increasingly made paid work less available. A huge amount of work is no longer rewarded by a salary but it still needs to get done. The policy makers attempt to close this gap with their ideology of the “civil participation society”. In other words: get as many people as possible to do as much unpaid work as possible. This must be managed and steered from the top. Forcing unemployed people into voluntary work, or making them believe that voluntary work will help them to get a job, is part of this. Many of the organisations that suffer heavy budget cuts are only too eager to make use of this. But it means that the work that will be done by volunteers previously was a paid job, so obviously it results in less and less jobs on the labour market. This development is called the squeezing out of paid jobs. On the one hand the cuts are made and on the other hand the jobless are put to work in voluntary work to cover for those cuts. All of this is part of the same policy: the jobless are forced to do the jobs previously cut by the government, only without pay.


With the decrease in the number of paid jobs the volunteer agencies in the meantime have become much more professional. The terminology used for voluntary work is the same as for paid work: there are in fact real “job boards” with “vacancies” that are no different from paid work vacancies. This overlap is not fictitious: it is visible from the fact that internships are also available through the job boards for volunteers. Volunteers can “offer” their services by posting their CV on job boards, and organisations and companies can respond to their “profile”. In this way the “matching” of volunteers and organisations is becoming more and more streamlined. Intermediary agencies are thus becoming quasi employment agencies. Also, some volunteer vacancies could easily be paid fulltime jobs. Volunteer coordinator, PR officer, support for carers, counsellor of the terminally ill – all of these are responsible and professional jobs, and often professional education also is required. Not so long ago these jobs were regular paid work. Then there are all sorts of vacancies that appear to be parts of a fulltime job, in order to have volunteers do the work in smaller parts. Being a cook for a couple of evenings a week, for example, or daily making a bed in a nursing home.

It is striking that the professionalised volunteer sector is run for the major part on volunteers and interns. Volunteers are coached into voluntary work by other volunteers, and they are efficiently and cheaply kept inside the mills of unpaid work. This creates a volunteer industry, worked by and for volunteers, that makes it easy to gradually transform paid work into unpaid work.

Reproductive work

Most of all this ‘new’ voluntary work is about informal care. This is reproductive work that focuses on the human element. Why this type of work specifically? Firstly because someone has to do it. Even if it is no longer paid work, it is inevitable that it needs to get done. Already informal “carers” are increasingly called upon. Under the new Social Support Act (in Dutch: WMO, Wet Maatschappelijke Ondersteuning) in addition to family members, also neighbours and acquaintances are to be involved. The government has created “respite care” in order to lighten the load of the overburdened carers now and then (to prevent them from breaking down completely). It means that for a short period the carer is replaced, usually again by a volunteer. In order to compensate for the budget cuts the so-called “kitchen table talks” are used to determine who from the social network is able to take on the tasks of paid health care personnel, supposedly because no budget is available for this anymore. If we are not willing to cooperate we face emotional blackmailing: our mother, neighbour or friend badly needs us. In addition there is the mantra that “everyone must do their bit” because we are living in the “participation society”. The accompanying message is that everyone has to work always, and if this is not paid work then it has to be unpaid.

Secondly, the status of reproductive labour has always been lower than that of other work. Many of the care tasks that have become paid jobs used to be the unpaid work done mostly by women. Now that women “can participate” on the labour market, and even have to participate, the care tasks have initially been moved to care institutes, child day care and domestic workers, among whom many migrants. That is, for those who can afford childcare because it is expensive and it is one of the areas where budgets have been cut considerably. You will not get into a nursing home anymore unless you are severely ill or able to pay a hefty sum. In addition these organisations and institutes have gone commercial, are reorganising or cutting costs. Health care workers have been complaining for years that the work pressure is rising and that they have no time to undertake anything “nice” with their clients. Increasingly, volunteers have been used to do just this. But now the volunteer is moving on even further and is taking on tasks that used to be done by a paid care worker or nurse. This means reproductive work is being pushed back towards the unpaid sector. Anthropologist David Graeber has described this phenomenon: the most valuable and meaningful work is paid the least (or not at all). Women, at least those at the bottom of society, are again the majority of the victims. This is because they are most often active in paid reproductive work that is made redundant, and they are also the ones who get to do most of the unpaid care work.

Dealing with government cuts

In other areas volunteers are also on the increase to fill the gaps that have emerged as a result of ruthless government cuts. For example in the welfare and charity sectors where subsidies have been reduced considerably. Even government tasks are more and more carried out by volunteers. Earlier on the state already made an effort to strangle bottom up initiatives and social activities aimed at the neighbourhood. This now needs to be rebuild but without a budget and according to the state’s conditions. For example, the maintenance of public green spaces for which municipalities ask neighbourhoods to “take initiative”, calling it “participation” or even label it as “more democracy”. Provided the neighbourhood is given the means and is able to take charge themselves this “participation” in itself may work. Usually however the state wants to remain in control, to see to it that the work is carried out on the conditions of the state even though the state is not taking care of it anymore. And all of this at a pittance. Organisations and initiatives that do not meet these conditions are threatened with losing their subsidy. The government is exploiting the positive image of voluntary work to conceal the coercion and cover up the budget gaps. Volunteer initiatives are being manipulated by the government and are used to meet the targets for budget cuts and disciplining.

Work-for-benefit and obligatory voluntary work

In the same way that subsidies are used to force neighbourhood initiatives into the ‘desired’ direction, benefits are used to control the unemployed. According to the state the recipients of welfare are particularly suitable for the work that has been branded as unpaid work. In 2012 Doorbraak talked to an “activation” consultant at a welfare organisation who was tasked with “helping” unemployed people with obligatory voluntary work. According to the Participation Act the municipalities have to request benefit recipients to contribute to activities in exchange for their unemployment benefit. The central government monitors closely that not only a “voluntary contribution” is asked but also obligatory “work-for-benefit” is assigned. The contribution means that benefit recipients “have to do something in return for their benefits”. In some municipalities substantial force is applied and unemployed have to pick trash for example for a considerable number of hours per week. In other municipalities the implementation is more subtle and people are pushed towards volunteer work.

One of the requirements for the work-for-benefit is that it should be “for the good of society”. But who decides what this means? There are probably quite a few consultants who would consider political activism, such as the resistance against the work-for-benefit, is not “in the public interest”, but to us this would be one of the most valuable forms of voluntary work we could think of. So not every kind of voluntary work will be approved just like that. Also, as already mentioned voluntary work is becoming more and more a requirement to have any chance of employment at all. As a result of these two things we no longer ‘choose’ the voluntary work that we consider as intrinsically important, but are pushed in the direction of unpaid work that is very close to paid labour. That is because this kind of work will provide the most relevant work experience. Officially the work-for-benefit scheme does not aim to contribute to reintegration. But it is very likely that the government prefers having us do this kind of voluntary work. It is exactly the work that is clearly replacing paid work!

Many municipalities are implementing the work-for-benefit scheme in a ‘subtle manner’. They purposefully use terminology such as “stimulate”, “activate”, “motivate” and “preventing social isolation”. All of this sounds nice: no pressure and just helping people to find voluntary work. But is this indeed the case? Because if they “really do not want to” then there certainly is compulsion. This is in fact what the municipality tells the unemployed very clearly: if you do not find voluntary work within a few months then we will assign you an obligatory work activity. So the threat of the work-for-benefit scheme is very concrete and it coincides with a tightened sanction policy, a stricter fraud policy, and an extensive and impossible information obligation. This is the social democratic way, where force is often not explicit but always present as a shadow in the background. In other words, there is always the threat that your socio-economic security is taken away from you. This can be compared to the methods used for so-called “voluntary return”, where migrants and refugees who have been made illegal are forced at knifepoint to cooperate in their own deportation. If they do not comply then they face months of detention and possibly a physically violent deportation.

This means that between real voluntary work and forced labour a grey area has emerged. Many unemployed will be forced to find something they are actually not really looking for, and they will do it whether they are motivated or not. This is not just a problem for the unemployed but also for volunteer organisations. It means that voluntary work becomes tainted with the smell of compulsion. More and more there will be people joining the volunteer sector whose motivation may be uncertain.

Resistance against mandatory volunteering

In the United Kingdom the action group Boycott Workfare has experience with voluntary work imposed by the government. The government there has designed several forced labour schemes. Officially, some of these are voluntary. However, if you refuse to participate in these ‘voluntary’ schemes, a mandatory scheme will be imposed. So to what extent is the scheme ‘voluntary’? Boycott Workfare simply calls these schemes forced labour. For some time now the action group is running the “Keep volunteering voluntary” campaign. Organisations can sign a declaration to pledge they will not be involved in forced labour schemes. This declaration has been signed by hundreds of organisations already. The campaign is gathering speed to make mandatory volunteering work impossible.

In the Netherlands the policies vary in each municipality and appear to be more vague. The enforcement seems more implied than in the United Kingdom. Despite this it is just as important to counter the trend where voluntary work is turned into a commercial scheme, a tool for reintegration, or a disciplining instrument. Voluntary work should remain voluntary and should not substitute paid jobs or conceal harsh budget cuts.

Joris Hanse
Mariët van Bommel