Elly McDonald

Writer

For National Volunteers Week 2019 – thoughts on the value of work

2 Comments

My first paid work was at age 16, in 1978, when the editor of a national publication commissioned me to write film reviews.

Trouble was, my first paid work went unpaid.

After a couple of months with no cheque in the mailbox, my mother wrote that editor a letter. Her daughter, she wrote, had worked hard on those film reviews. It was her first paid employment. Surely it was desirable that the lesson a 16 year-old learned is that labour is exchanged for monetary recompense.

A cheque arrived, belatedly.

By then I had moved on to writing for an Adelaide-based national rock music publication, for free. After nearly a year of writing for no money, I was offered freelance work by a higher circulation rock music publication, in Sydney, for whom I wrote till mid-1986, always commissioned articles, always as a freelance.

My stockpiled articles for the Adelaide publication continued to appear for some months. When they had no further articles of mine to run, a representative of that publication arranged to meet with me to ask me to continue writing for them, unpaid.

He pointed out that that publication could not afford to pay contributors. I was unmoved. That was their problem, I said.

He was passionate, committed to his project. He explained everyone involved made personal sacrifices to keep that publication viable. He himself was obliged to run drugs between the Riverina and Adelaide to bring in cash for printing costs.

Some time later I read in a mainstream newspaper that his body had been found by the side of a Riverina highway, shot-gunned, I don’t remember if the magazine had already folded.

A popular TV personality hired me to proof-read the reissue of his book. I charged $150. When he wrote the cheque, he told me he would have paid me ten times that much, if I had asked. I hadn’t asked.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” he said.

When I stopped writing freelance and moved into paid employee positions, I discovered that no employer ever paid me as a new employee on my first due payday. They kept saying it took time to set up payments – sometimes six weeks. Sometimes there were problems, delays, across the first few months. It was not till I was in my mid-30s that an employer actually paid my first pay when due.

I took a temporary contract job with a company owned by Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, what we in Australia would call the national Treasurer. His companies notoriously had a policy of paying contractors, freelancers and suppliers late, as late as they could get away with – sometimes three months or longer, until legal action commenced.

The procedure was that pays were meant to be processed on a Friday. Pays could only be processed if two directors countersigned an individual’s paperwork. But such were the demands on company directors that very often, two directors could not be found to sign off on the Friday. If they missed that day, pay due would carry over to the next fortnight’s payday – when it might happen that way again.

I had been there eight weeks and been paid twice, maybe three times. My immediate boss was due to take a family holiday in Spain. I was to hold the fort in his absence. I told him very clearly me showing up at work was contingent on me being paid on time. My boss promised he would speak to the directors and make sure it happened.

The night before my boss and his family were due to fly to Spain, I phoned him at his home to say pay had not shown up in my bank account. I told him I needed that money in my hand or else I would be a no-show and our work project would collapse.

He cried. He said I was blackmailing him. He said all he wanted was a week off in the sun, relaxing on holiday.

Did I like my boss? I liked him very much. Did I like that job? Yes. Did I like having to threaten my boss with an ultimatum? Not even slightly.

But I had rent due and I needed to eat and life in London is a hard scrabble. I’d done the work. I needed the pay. For sure, a multi-millionaire confidante of Margaret Thatcher did not need to hang on to my money those extra days.

I moved to a job where I was paid half what my male counterparts were paid. I complained about that. I was told by a billionaire banker that I was well paid (I was), and that I should feel grateful (I was not). Sorry. Not grateful. I did the same work. I did it as well or better. I was well paid, but well paid for a demanding and responsible role that required special skills, which I brought.

I moved to a similar job, on higher pay. At that time in the UK, there was a program whereby employees could nominate that set amounts from their pre-tax salary could be directed each payday to designated charities. I determined a small percentage of my salary and filled in the paperwork spreading donations between about 10 charities.

The company finance director told me if I had that money spare, they were obviously paying me too much.

A week or two later I received a formal letter from the finance director advising there’d been an error in my letter of offer. The amount specified as my salary was meant to be the amount of my total package. My salary therefore needed to be adjusted downwards.

My letter of offer explicitly spelled out my salary plus additional benefits, bringing the total package amount up to somewhere still a bit south of my male counterparts.

I was not willing to accept a reduced salary. On legal advice, I stayed at home, on sick leave, while letters were exchanged. I refused to answer phone calls or to meet personally with the company directors. I sent faxes to the central fax machine at that workplace, where any employee could read details of our negotiations.

Did I enjoy doing this? Honestly. Are you kidding?

I talked about this with a few CEOs down the years. Each of them shrugged, said it was par for the course. Shit happens. Employees get screwed over. That’s the game.

In subsequent years I’ve occasionally found myself again forced to draw on my inner bitch.

There was the time I resigned and was asked to finish up immediately. I refused to leave the office till I received my severance pay. So sorry, I said. I believe this business is trading while insolvent. I believe if I leave this office now, I will never receive payment.

My ex-bosses accused me of holding them hostage. I was intransigent. After all, I pointed out, I was willing to work out my notice in professional good faith. They were the ones who asked for an immediate severance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this history, I have preferred my voluntary employments over the years to my paid employments.

I first volunteered at age 21 (37 years ago) and have volunteered substantial hours consistently for the past 17 years.

The role call of organisations I have volunteered for includes (no particular order) Bellarine Community Health, Conservation Volunteers Australia, Geelong Gallery, GAWS (Geelong Animal Welfare Shelter), UCA (Uniting Church in Australia), Amnesty International, AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Services), Melbourne Theatre Company, HM Prison Feltham, Women’s Electoral Lobby.

I have loved working for almost all these organisations, but I have my beefs.

One beef is showing up for a volunteer shift to find my superviser or manager has not given thought to how to deploy a volunteer that day. I hate being turned away and told to go home. Petrol costs. Besides, it’s disrespectful of my time and labour.

Another beef is this: when should a volunteer role be recognised as essential tasks and become a paid role?

It’s National Volunteers Week this week, 20-27 May.

While I’m impressed by the commitment of the many volunteers featured in posts across social media (promoting the organisations for whom they labour), some of these posts perplex me.

Three days a week for 15 years, contributing professional expertise?

That’s not a volunteer gig, that’s a job: an unpaid job.

In Australia, where I live, many of these people will be on Newstart or the Age Pension, having to deal with the bureaucratic indignities and public stigma that Centrelink welfare recipients live with.

Others are in a financial position to contribute unpaid labour, and thrive in responsible unpaid positions in desirable workplaces, with social kudos (the arts and culture industries), because of their privilege. (Yes, being able to offer labour for free is a position of privilege, regardless of how hard a person worked to reach that position of privilege.)

It is true that volunteering brings benefits to the volunteer that are not monetary. Many volunteers identify with the organisation where they contribute their labour. Volunteering provides meaningful activity, social interaction. Purpose, relationship. Access to an environment that aligns with their values and reinforces their desired self-image. They might feel an individual has an obligation to give back to the community at no charge, and where that is the case, good on ’em.

There may also be deferred monetary benefits. Volunteer work might provide skills development, keep job seeker references fresh, help a person into paid employment.

Here’s a couple of ideas:

1. Where people have volunteered in a specific role for 12 months, review that role and that individual’s contribution, to determine if it should and can become a paid role. Volunteers will shy away from this: volunteers love their roles, they make the role their own. They’re invested, and they do not want to walk away. Even so, after a few years it can wear thin. IMHO, after about two years, with the role unpaid, the employer is taking the piss. If you really can’t pay them, but wish to retain their skills at no cost, move that volunteer into a different volunteer function. Or suggest they broaden their unpaid experience by taking on new challenges elsewhere. Don’t milk them dry.

2. My preference: Where people have established a valued volunteer niche, have the government fund their institution to pay them properly for their labour, as a subsidised job. Give them the respect of recognising they’re DOING a real job, and untie them from the whipping post that is Centrelink.

This week is National Volunteers Week. It was also a national election week.

In a week where I saw Australian voters referring online to people on benefits as “bottom feeders”, I cannot see our re-elected conservative government changing the status quo.

A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is the ideal of paid employment.

Remind me… What happens to ideals?

Show_me_the_money

Author: Elly McDonald

Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also briefly as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

2 thoughts on “For National Volunteers Week 2019 – thoughts on the value of work

  1. I’ve often thought about the effect on the government’s bottom line if all the volunteers – in schools, hospitals, charities, arts institutions – and all the NGOs working in welfare and social support went on strike. People are so quick to damn stay-at-home parents or pensioners or unemployed or church organisations but they’d pretty quickly realise they are worth more than most if they all suddenly stopped doing what they do to support society.

    Like

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