Big Society – from interns to volunteers

A volunteer trade union activist writes…

There is a discussion underway within the UK science communication community concerning the use of volunteers to run science festivals and the like. We are talking of unpaid roles ranging from logistics to highly skilled science writing and PR. In particular we have a recent call from the Royal Society for volunteers to staff its 2013 Summer Science Exhibition. The jobs are full time for the week of the festival, with a training period in London prior to the event.

My initial response was to say that, whilst this may only be a one week gig, plus whatever training is required, in order to provide equality of opportunity for prospective casual staff the Royal Society should be offering more than a maximum of £10 per day travel expenses and lunch.

Within the open email list discussion are a number of personal testimonies from former exhibition volunteers, all of them negative in tone, and in addition I have received confidential off-list tales, with a request that the content be forwarded to my colleagues in the National Union of Journalists. This is not the first time I have donned my NUJ hat in the PSCI-COM email list. A few months ago I intervened in a similar discussion about internships, and as a result helped secure the agreement of the British Science Association to pay its interns the London Living Wage.

For the Royal Society to offer the London Living Wage to its casual exhibition staff would surely be affordable, given the small number of people involved, the duration, and the overall cost of staging such an event. Also accommodation costs for those who live outside London.

The maximum expenses offered to volunteers will restrict the positions to London residents who can afford to be without income for the exhibition week and training period. Even if all the appointed volunteers are students, many of them could find themselves out of pocket in providing a valuable service to the Royal Society.

In response to my initial intervention, a formal response from the Royal Society’s science communication chief Katherine Jarrett was posted to the PSI-COM list by a junior assistant. In her statement Jarrett says that the input of volunteers is not essential to the delivery of the exhibition. Jarrett’s statement contains management-speak references to opportunities and excitement, and she insists that the volunteers cannot be considered as temporary or casual staff.

This flatly contradicts the testimony of former volunteers who tell of very long and stressful hours, with promised time off during the week withdrawn owing to the need to get things done. This does not sound to me like non-essential labour.

In response to Jarrett I wrote…

“Going by the tasks undertaken by exhibition volunteers, it is clear that they provide the Royal Society with a tangible economic benefit, and can thus be regarded as casual staff. This is so even if the Royal Society provides volunteers with opportunities to gain experience and develop marketable skills. The same can be said about any job, at any level from cleaner to chief executive.

“Given that the exhibition is the only Royal Society activity which involves the use of volunteers, this reinforces the argument that to pay them a living wage for the limited duration of their appointment would impose a relatively minor financial burden on the society.”

After that the PSCI-COM discussion rapidly turned into a deluge of contributions, almost all of which have been constructive.

As for those former volunteers who contributed personal testimonies, I have alerted colleagues in the NUJ’s campaigns and legal departments, and they have asked me to keep them informed of any developments, whether positive or negative. If there is no further response from the Royal Society, the NUJ will consider its options.

It is important that we do not judge this case on Katherine Jarrett’s hastily drafted and insensitively worded statement, or, with all due respect to them, on the negative experiences of former Royal Society volunteers, much of which has to do with surly HR officers. The reasons for such poor behaviour on the part of recruiters are many and various, and can range from simple oversight and overwork on the one hand, through to psychopathic managerialism in the most extreme cases.

Whatever the reasons, such behaviour is grossly disrespectful of skilled job applicants who go about their employment searches in a professional manner, investing a considerable amount of time in the process: time which might otherwise be spent in financially fruitful endeavours.

On the positive side, when it comes to the fair treatment of interns and casual staff in the communications industry, constructive campaigning by the NUJ and others has led to substantive change. Unpaid internships are now considered unlawful, regulations governing voluntary work programmes are under close scrutiny, and employers increasingly see the benefits to to all concerned of paying at the very minimum a Living Wage.

One very interesting contribution to the PSCI-COM discussion comes from a science festival director who asks under what particular circumstances it is acceptable to use volunteers. It is a pertinent question, but one to which there is no simple answer.

The rules governing volunteer work were written for a different age. With the Conservative Party’s “Big Society”, in which volunteering as a form of establishment approved social activism is seen as the new Big Thing, we need to consider in detail volunteering is it is done beyond charity shops staffed largely by senior citizens.

Volunteer culture has traditionally been one which involves people who are financially secure offering a little or a lot of their time to do good works. One could describe this as a form of petite-bourgeois philanthropy by groups such as retirees in receipt of pensions that cover their material needs, and homemakers with partners who provide a substantial income for the entire family.

This is all very well, but there are millions of unemployed and underemployed people with time on their hands, and for whom a living is essential. Draw them into volunteering, and they risk being exploited on a massive scale. We already have a serious problem with workfare programmes for the unemployed, with the staffing costs of large commercial concerns subsidised by the state. There are lines to be drawn, but they must, in the absence of clear laws, regulations and guidelines, be drawn on a case by case basis with a mind to general moral principles.

The discussion looks set to run on in the PSCI-COM list, which can be read by non-members. Whilst respecting the confidentiality of material sent to me off-list, my wish is to broaden the NUJ campaign on internships to include volunteering in the communications industry. The law is on our side as regards unpaid internships (they are illegal), but any organisation registered with the Charity Commission is legally able to use unpaid volunteers to support commercial and semi-commercial activities such as scientific and cultural festivals. That cannot be right.

As I type this post my inbox is filling up with messages from science communicators struggling to establish themselves in the trade. These often serial volunteers and interns express thanks to me and the NUJ for defending their interests, but they are hesitant to contribute to the open discussion for fear of antagonising those who hold the purse strings. This is quite understandable given how small and professionally incestuous the science communication sector is in Britain.