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?







Do I Really Know What’s Happening

Over a working dinner tonight,  a business partner asked me what my perception of the sustainability field currently is. Are the companies really increasing sustainable business, are more companies getting engaged and is the development going to the right direction?

Having just completed a 2-day forum focused on responsible agribusiness, with over 450 people from government, business, NGOs, media, and the development communities participating, I certainly was inclined to say yes. We had smallholder farmers and representatives of farmer organizations involved. There were 40 students, the hopes of the future in the room. The minister of agriculture and minister of industry delivered a speech. Yes, we are moving the right way, the development is encouraging and collaboration increasing.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals and signing of the Paris agreement certainly made 2015 an encouraging and hope-boosting year. Our forum engaged many more companies than before and initial feedback was remarkably positive.

But is this real? Are we really on the right path? Even, or especially, at encouraging and inspiring times as now, shouldn’t we be questioning the direction and the efforts to get there? A saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. Do we really know where we are going? Do I know the destination?

Questioning the presence isn’t necessarily being cynical. It’s a required pit stop for checking the direction, making sure that we’re on the right track. It’s so easy to lose sight of the goal when you’re getting excited and maybe too self-sure.

In the sustainability field, I have to question my perception of the general atmosphere and of the status of the development, duly because I’m very biased. I’m biased for judging the development as I’m looking for all the right signals. I read news about sustainability, about the projects and initiatives of companies and organizations. About the commitments of the governments and the actions undertaken by businesses. I speak with like-minded people, who have the same passion and interest for the field. I follow the companies communication and collaborate with those who are open and ready for it.

So do I really know what’s happening, or do I just know what’s happening among my “peers”, among those who are “in” in the sustainability field?

Yes and no. I do know it’s a growing number of companies who are publicly committing to sustainability actions, such as conserving energy and water, and supporting their supply chain. Governments have pledged their support for achieving the global goals. There is momentum – big part of the world is listening. But is there enough action?

Are the governments truly committed and are their commitments enough? Are consumers really getting more aware and interested in sustainability? Will they change their consumption habits and go beyond caring to actual action? Will businesses re-design their business strategies, become more socially engaged and act on their words? Are the non-profits supporting the efforts of the businesses and government and demanding for real change and commitment?

I don’t have the answers. I live in my own bubble. In my world the movement is real, action is taking place and momentum is almost tangible. But it’s my world, and no, I can’t be sure my world is the reality. My world is getting greener, but I don’t know how big the grey area is. And I’m not sure which one is leading and which one will be winning. I can just hope that my perception is right, that my hopes change into a reality.

Even if I can’t eliminate my biased view of the world, I won’t stop believing in it. I don’t have the answers but I’m asking the questions. I want to learn to understand the world better. Those on the green side should seek for communication and understanding with the greys. Impossible can become possible. I will work to make my world the reality.