Why unpaid labour is bad for everyone


The announcement that Edinburgh’s Hogmanay party – £26 a ticket and estimated to bring in business worth £40 Million – is advertising for 300 unpaid volunteers, is yet another indictment on our society, and on our local government who could stop this from happening. The volunteers will be expected to do 12 hours unpaid work plus several training sessions, and it is good to see that this has been greeted with well-published condemnation. Keep up the pressure!

I originally drafted this piece after Carnival 56 had used volunteer labour to steward their commercial music festival in Dundee. When we raised the issue with Dundee councillors (together with Better than Zero), individuals from all parties, apart from the Tories, were happy to go on record supporting our objection; but when it came to actually doing something, nothing happened. However we, and others who share our view that this is not acceptable, haven’t gone away: not in Dundee, nor anywhere else.

Volunteering used to be something that folk did to help make things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise: things like community fairs – or mutual support groups for the unemployed. Voluntary work, more or less organised, is the glue that holds communities together. But, like so much else, volunteering is increasingly being co-opted by capitalism. Most destructive is the mandatory unpaid ‘voluntary’ work forced on the unemployed by various workfare schemes. Refusal to take part can result in a sanction and the destitution that this implies, so this can fairly be understood as a form of slavery. More insidious, are the constant pressure to do voluntary work or ‘internships’ to prove your worth in the jobs market, and the burgeoning and lengthening programmes of ‘work experience’. You are now expected to earn the right to earn a living – which is especially difficult if you start off with nothing. These practices have become normalised, but they exploit some of the least well off people in the country, and in doing so, they undercut the potential for paying jobs. (They are also subsidised by public money in the form of the dole.)

When voluntary work brings the worker something positive for themselves, then the exploitation can seem less obvious, but that doesn’t mean that it should be ignored or accepted. That is why the fight against the use of unpaid labour must include the use of volunteers at festivals. This has become standard practice, and the firm that organises the volunteer labour for music festivals across the UK charges a significant fee to festival organisers. We have heard some pleasant experiences of such volunteering as well as some unhappy ones, but that is not really the point. We don’t generally expect people not to be paid if they find their jobs at all enjoyable; and the experience would only be improved by the addition of a wage! That might even allow you to buy a ticket for a future festival and enjoy the whole thing with everyone else. Working unpaid at a festival is a bit like doing the washing up to pay for your restaurant meal, and having to eat that meal at the kitchen sink. (At Carnival 56 the amount of forgone wages actually exceeded the price of a weekend ticket for full enjoyment of all the bands.) And while, at first glance, volunteering may seem to provide a perfect opportunity for people on JSA, who lose almost a pound off their benefit for every pound earned, having a wage and losing it again would leave them no worse off – in fact, in the case of Carnival 56 they would be better off, as they wouldn’t have to pay the administration fee or put up the large deposit needed to book a volunteer place. The only opportunities on offer here are opportunities to be exploited.

So what, people have said to us, if people volunteer that is their choice. But in making that choice they are effectively undercutting paid jobs. At Carnival 56, bar staff were paid, but stewards weren’t. Perhaps next time they will recruit more volunteers and there will be no paid bar jobs either. The impact of individual choices is rarely limited to the individual, and for the sake of wider society we need to come together to make sure that such exploitative practices are recognised as unacceptable. In making a stand we are fighting for all workers, employed and unemployed, and putting a barrier in the path of the drive towards a no-pay economy.

As we will continue to say to councillors in Dundee, and also to councillors in Edinburgh and elsewhere: you have the power to stop this exploitation. Councils could make payment of everyone working at commercial events a requirement in order to receive a license and to use council venues. Now that would be something worth celebrating.


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