Last month unison members in Southampton went on strike over the city council’s plans sack employees and replace them with unpaid volunteers. The council plans to get rid of 6 librarians. According to unison this will lead to one library being run exclusively by volunteers.
This, I am afraid, is a sign of things to come. As Richard noted last week, Cameron’s Big Society is set to involve replacing public service professionals with unpaid labour. And this is a big problem for both public sector workers and public service users. The most immediate problem for Southampton’s Librarians is that they face losing their jobs at a time when jobseekers outnumber vacancies by a ratio of 5 to 1. In other words they the real possibility of long term unemployment. More generally, the use of volunteer labour raises a damocles axe above the heads of all public sector workers. How easy will it be to push for decent wages, when your employer has an army of unpaid Gill Archer types at its disposal.
Finally this will hit users. Being a librarian is a difficult and demanding job. It involves dealing with lots people, often young people and vulnerable people. The question is whether we want to offer these people a proper library service staffed with public sector professionals, or whether they should have to rely upon volunteers – some who will inevitably (and understandably) feel that they are doing them a favour by being there. As Cliff Willet who works in the voluntary sector remarked over at i-volunteer
Being paid for what you do does make you more likely to show up for work on time, and does make you legally accountable to deliver the work you are entrusted to do. If it didn’t, why would anyone ever pay anyone to do anything?
As the Big Society kick’s into action, and volunteering perhaps becomes the next big thing, it is important for us all be aware of the implications of what. Yes, volunteering can, as David Cameron suggests, bring people closer together, and it can, most certainly, be a means of improving your local community. Yet, helping to put somebody out of a job will not make your community a better place to live. And replacing those who need to work with those who can afford to work for free is the last thing that is likely to bring communities together.