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The counter-cultural, rehumanising work of volunteers

  • 27 April 2017


A significant portion of the work that goes on in our economy is voluntary. It features in many contexts, such as parishes, social welfare, tutorial and mentoring, animal welfare, landcare, local sport, and arts and literary activities. Emergency services and surf lifesavers rely on volunteers.

It can be hard to make a case for volunteering at a time when labour exploitation is rife. Framing work as its own reward is how businesses profit from unpaid internships and 'trial periods'. Students, migrants and Indigenous people, who need to establish work experience, are particularly vulnerable when it comes to unpaid work. There are traps, and they deserve serious attention.

This does not mean that volunteer work can never be meaningful. In some ways, it sheds light on the nature of work — its life-giving properties, the ways in which it binds us, and the truth that not all relationships have to be transactional.

According to the most recent ABS findings (2010), 36 per cent of Australians 18 and over participated in voluntary work, with women slightly more likely to volunteer than men. In the 12 months prior to the survey, 6.1 million people had willingly given unpaid help in the form of time, service or skills through an organisation or group.

The volunteer rate outside capital cities is higher, at 41 per cent to 34. Employed people have higher rates of voluntary work (38 per cent full-time, 44 per cent part-time) than unemployed (20 per cent) or retired (31 per cent). The median hours spent on voluntary work is 56 hours per year. Research at Flinders University calculated that the economic value of volunteers could be up to $290 billion.

Voluntary work involves as much physical and mental labour as paid work. The number of volunteers and hours required, for instance, in ensuring that Vinnies op-shops are positive, dignified and safe for shoppers is always more than is rostered.

The stream of clothes, furniture and kitchenware that get donated have to be constantly assessed, repaired or cleaned, sorted, labelled and priced appropriately. It consumes time and space. Yet it can be moving to witness the intense care that goes into preparing second-hand items so that someone with little cash can walk in the door, buy a nice top and not feel like shit.

Without the complication that can come with wage, volunteers can afford to focus on people. It means that those they encounter are rightfully treated as subjects