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?

 

 

 

 

 

Responsible Business

How would you define responsible business and who’s allowed to claim it their mission and vision?

Our company organizes international sustainability conferences, convening leaders and decision-makers from all stakeholder groups; governments, businesses, international organizations, development experts, ground-level non-profits, financial institutions and media. The aim is to bring together all stakeholders to facilitate action and outcome -focused discussions for sustainable development, using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as the framework and guideline.

Before every forum, we get some comments and complaints on speakers, sponsors or partners, claimed to not be “responsible” enough, to take part in a “responsible business forum”. The cursed ones typically including  the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Philip Morris International, Asia Plantation Capital and others. Sometimes also the Nestle’s, Coca-Colas or Cargill’s. 4 weeks before our annual flagship event, the Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development Singapore“, the topic is trending again. The international development organizations are most often the ones wanting to define which kind of company is allowed to be on the same panel as they are. Who should be in the room, who can speak with whom.

My passion is to engage the private sector to the development work. To help companies understand how they can sustain their business and create positive impact, creating win-win situations for all stakeholders. Connect them with right partners, providing them platforms for seeking out collaboration and support. I believe the forums we organize provide the right kind of platform for sharing best practices, meeting relevant stakeholders, challenging others and seeking for collaboration.

Shouldn’t it be beneficial to a cause-motivated organization, to have a public, open platform, where they can engage in the conversation and challenge those whose positions or perspectives they don’t support or agree with? Instead of opposing to appear on the same stage with a company whose business they don’t support, use that as an opportunity to question them and challenge them?

It’s a bold move from controversial companies to join such discussions, to come in front of a public eye, willing to reply to criticism and open for discussion.

Equally, those whose business practices or field of operations are causing negative impact, are the ones most in need of open platforms where they can learn more about sustainability. Where they might learn about solutions to apply to their business models that make them more responsible.

Isn’t that what development is all about? Improvement? In the corporate-world, advancing sustainable business practices, promoting proven solutions and encouraging adaptation of more responsible and sustainable business operations?

I appreciate the work of different types of organizations, which help to push the bar up and demand private sector to stand up to their corporate responsibilities. I see the need for the idealistic, perfectionist perspectives. Yet, I find that real progress comes from collaboration, from working together with realistic objectives. I also believe everyone needs to be included in the conversations, invited to share their perspectives and to have the chance for learning from others and to be engaged in dialogue. Listen, and learn, applies to all sides.

 *In case it’s not obvious that my views are my own and that I’m writing solely as an independent person, being alone responsible for my writing, please refer to my earlier post about me owning my views, my words, my opinions. 

 

 

Profits Matter

Working with global companies on sustainability projects and promoting responsible business practices is not a simple task. The private sector is still often considered an enemy of sustainable development, the obstacle to overcome on the path of creating a better world. All the more so when their area of business is not considered the most sustainable. Take tobacco companies, refineries, pesticide or GMO producers.

I remember well a moment at a global sustainability conference, where the organizers were questioned by a delegate why they would let a representative of an ”evil company” speak at a responsible business-  focused forum. My question is, Why not? Aren’t those companies most in need of support from others, requiring partners and watchdogs to develop their operations to be as sustainable as possible?

Companies are needed, there’s no getting around that fact. They actually hold the key to the future development of our planet. They have long-term business interest to sustain their operations, make profit now and in the future. The interest of making profit defines their motivation for sustainable development.

I’ve been challenged in my field of work with remarks on the private sector only being interested in green-washing and maximizing their profits no matter what. Surely I don’t disagree the motivation on doing good sometimes being the hoped-for improvements in company images. More often though, the motivation for better, greener business is that it’s good for business. Companies can save big amounts with investments to renewable energy or by training their supply chain.

Is that green-washing? Doing good because it’s good for business? Do the reasons for the motivation really matter? If a corporate shifts to using renewable energy, commits to reducing water consumption, develops the capacity of their local supply chains or creates affordable products for the people at the bottom of the pyramid, shouldn’t we embrace the development despite their motivations?

Companies are not charities nor should they be. By focusing on profit making, they trigger new innovations, are able to fund relevant research and can focus on long-term development plans. Innovations from life-saving vaccines and medicines, improved nutrition to healthier heating and lighting technologies are all outcomes of profit-seeking companies’ efforts, in their quest of making profit.

Certainly we need to be watchful and ask for better practices. But that’s what the collaboration is needed for. With NGOs demanding for more responsible business and consumers asking for more transparency, we’ll be on the right path. Companies have the power to change the world and we need to make sure they are taking it to the right direction.