Are You Working for Free?

Are NGOs the new interns of the workforce?

Recently I had a discussion on this with a friend who leads a women empowerment NGO, and who’s been frustrated on the lack of financial support commitments from the private sector in honor of their work together. Companies are increasingly interested in hiring them to work together, but paying in pennies. As if an NGO didn’t deserve to be paid for the expertise work they do?

I’m a keen advocate and believer of NGO – private sector partnerships. There’s great potential for the private sector to make their operations more sustainable, to boost responsible and profit-creating business practices through partnerships with different NGOs, who have ground-level connections and expertise for example for sustainable supply chain development or community engagement. Interest and understanding for the opportunities have been growing steadily.

But do the partnerships create value for those doing the work? Are the NGOs benefiting from all the work they do for the private sector, fairly?

During my university years, one of the most common topics among students was unpaid internships. Great work experience, CV development, connections were often offered – but no paycheck. This applies from private sector to government bodies. Students, and worst even fresh graduates, have for longest time been expected to be working for free. And typically also without a hope of an employment within the said workplace, leaving them with nothing but experiences to pay their debts.

The internship problem has not faded away, but it has clearly escalated. Beyond recruiting young graduates to work for free, employers are now turning to NGOs with similar expectations. It seems common to engage an NGO for a partnership with potentially a nominal fee, to do work that otherwise would likely have been undertaken by a consultant charging a much higher amount.

NGOs or small businesses further face a dilemma of being expected to finish a major part of the job before getting a guarantee of any kind of payment. This applies to project funding applications which often require days, weeks, months even planning and preparation and have no guarantee of success. Service contracts, where half the work needs to be completed before agreement is even signed. Designers being asked for the design to prove the expected quality, before contracting or paying. Translators needing to do part of the translation to show their capacity. These are just a few samples I’ve come across, with huge risks and uncertain payments for individuals or small operators and full power for the bigger “partner” to determine the terms and whether agreement will be granted or honored.

Why do young fresh graduates work for free? Why do NGOs accept lowly paid partnership services? Why do individuals and small businesses do half the work without a formal appointment and hence without a security to get covered for the work done?

Big players nominate the field and create the rules. These can be companies just as well as governments. It’s modern exploitation. Big ones have the power over the small ones.

I’ve experienced this conduct even from typically ethical, responsible actors – such as multinational companies ranking high on sustainability indexes or embassies of western countries. Often I’ve in my mind questioned the practices but never been in the position to stand up for it – for the certainty of losing the job, the deal, the partner.

We talk a lot about responsible business, sustainability, environment protection, community engagement etc, even about looking after the own staff. But what about those who are giving a critical contribution, but being left hanging half-way in, half-way out? The interns, NGOs, small businesses – those whose services can be invaluable but not (adequately) paid for?

How can we break the circle of using free workforce?

 

 

 

 

 

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