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The counter-cultural, rehumanising work of volunteers

Fatima Measham |  26 April 2017


A significant portion of the work that goes on in our economy is voluntary. It features in many contexts, such as parishes, social welfare, tutorial and mentoring, animal welfare, landcare, local sport, and arts and literary activities. Emergency services and surf lifesavers rely on volunteers.

Vinnies volunteersIt can be hard to make a case for volunteering at a time when labour exploitation is rife. Framing work as its own reward is how businesses profit from unpaid internships and 'trial periods'. Students, migrants and Indigenous people, who need to establish work experience, are particularly vulnerable when it comes to unpaid work. There are traps, and they deserve serious attention.

This does not mean that volunteer work can never be meaningful. In some ways, it sheds light on the nature of work — its life-giving properties, the ways in which it binds us, and the truth that not all relationships have to be transactional.

According to the most recent ABS findings (2010), 36 per cent of Australians 18 and over participated in voluntary work, with women slightly more likely to volunteer than men. In the 12 months prior to the survey, 6.1 million people had willingly given unpaid help in the form of time, service or skills through an organisation or group.

The volunteer rate outside capital cities is higher, at 41 per cent to 34. Employed people have higher rates of voluntary work (38 per cent full-time, 44 per cent part-time) than unemployed (20 per cent) or retired (31 per cent). The median hours spent on voluntary work is 56 hours per year. Research at Flinders University calculated that the economic value of volunteers could be up to $290 billion.

Voluntary work involves as much physical and mental labour as paid work. The number of volunteers and hours required, for instance, in ensuring that Vinnies op-shops are positive, dignified and safe for shoppers is always more than is rostered.

The stream of clothes, furniture and kitchenware that get donated have to be constantly assessed, repaired or cleaned, sorted, labelled and priced appropriately. It consumes time and space. Yet it can be moving to witness the intense care that goes into preparing second-hand items so that someone with little cash can walk in the door, buy a nice top and not feel like shit.

Without the complication that can come with wage, volunteers can afford to focus on people. It means that those they encounter are rightfully treated as subjects rather than objects, and with full dimension. There are no KPIs, no 'mutual obligation requirements'. It is rehumanising work.


"The spaces in which volunteers work usually points to the ways in which governments have failed and societies are broken. Soup vans, women's shelters, immigration detention - we find volunteers there, too."


In the case of Big Brothers Big Sisters, it often provides the only (non-relative) adult in a young person's life who is not involved in a professional capacity. The organisation selects and trains mentors for children aged seven to 17 who are living with several layers of disadvantage.

The aim is to keep kids at school and away from risk behaviours. Many of these relationships become lifelong, well beyond the original need. The growth is mutual. It is impossible to imagine it working if Big Brothers and Big Sisters were paid to be there.

There are many other kinds of volunteer, and just as many reasons to work unpaid, with free consent. People might have time to spare, had parents who volunteered and so are primed to do the same, or feel compelled to give back to the community. Retired volunteers do it to be around people. Students do it for causes and groups that have captured their passion.

Moreover, the spaces in which volunteers work usually points to the ways in which governments have failed and societies are broken. Soup vans, women's shelters, immigration detention — we find volunteers there, too. Volunteering is counter-cultural in some sense; it interferes with the idea that the only type of work worth doing returns dollars.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

National Volunteer Week runs from 8–14 May.



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Submitted comments

There is volunteer work that exists because the world is broken and volunteer work that would exist even if it were not. Examples of the latter would come from arts, sport and literary activities, and even from landcare. Any kind of volunteer effort that has to exist because the world is broken is an inefficiency, a wastage of time and effort, caused by people who don’t know how to live (and the people could be the volunteers themselves, otherwise functional people, but who are caught up in structures of social sin). It’s also an opportunity cost, stealing the time and effort that could have gone into voluntary activities that enhance even what would have been an unblemished Creation. Congratulate yourselves not for volunteering in animal or social welfare: you were never meant to be volunteering in them.

Roy Chen Yee 27 April 2017

The need for volunteers 'points to ways in which governments have failed". If we expect government to provide all our needs, Fatima , we would have to pay a phenomenal amount of personal tax. Take your pick! Perhaps volunteers who are also paying tax and saving government money deserve a tax deduction?

john frawley 28 April 2017

Oh, Roy! You appear to be blaming those in need for their situation, and volunteers for abetting them...say it isn't so!

Lenore Crocker 28 April 2017

You may be comparing a perfect, idealised world with the real world but I can't agree with you Roy. Thousands of SES volunteers across Australia respond to natural disasters to save lives and property, often at some risk to themselves. They are not inefficient or wasting their time and effort. They are mostly members of the community helping each other in the most practical way they can. The same goes for people who get out there and provide food, clothing and shelter for those who have lost everything. You seem to be saying the work of groups like the Salvos and the Smith Family with people from broken homes or who are homeless for whatever reason is a waste of time and effort in a broken world . You seem to be saying if these people had a better relationship with God ("caused by people who don't know how to live") they would not be in their situation in the first place. Sounds like you are blaming the victims for their lot in life and, by extension, blaming people who want to help them for keeping them down. Sorry if I've misunderstood you Roy but that's how it reads.

Brett 28 April 2017

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