Today a new campaign ‘Justice for Interns / Volunteers’ is being launched by charity workers hoping to end what they see as the exploitative practices of many charities. This got me thinking about the circumstances under which it is OK for charities to use volunteers and unpaid interns as a source of free labour and when is it morally reprehensible.

Any attempt to weigh up the rights and wrongs of this common charity practice, is of course, a normative endeavour and therefore must have theory of justice at its heart. Not wishing to get bogged down in intricacies surrounding ‘veils of ignorance’ and the like let us assume that most people would agree with a notion of justice which, on the whole, follows the argument that ‘an outcome is just if all parties impacted by it would agree to it, if they did not know the outcome before hand.’ For example, two people who did not know the outcome of distributing a pie between the two of them would both agree for it to split in half. Exploitation then would take place if A forced B, through whatever means, to have a smaller slice.

John Roemer provides a formal definition of capitalist exploitation in the form of “B exploits A when B takes unfair advantage of a situation in which A is placed by a lack of access to resources” This, therefore, suggests that:

‘Charities exploit volunteers and unpaid interns when they take advantage of their lack of access to entry level opportunities in the charity sector labour market.’

Yet how can we judge if a charity is ‘taking advantage’ or alternatively enabling a volunteer to fulfil their altruistic wants. There are, I think, three clear suggestions that a charity is guilty of the above definition of exploitation.

  1. Using volunteers or unpaid interns who, it would be reasonable to assume, are providing their labour for free in the hope of career progression. One would expect most charities to be able to differentiate between people applying for unpaid work because they hope the post will further their career prospects and those who have no interest in a career in the sector but have some spare time which they wish to donate.
  2. Lack of entry level positions, but existence of unpaid internships or voluntary positions is a clear suggestion that that unpaid positions are being treated as entry level positions, rather than as a way for people to altruistically donate their time. Meaning that the charity is clearly taking advantage of the lack of labour market opportunities in order to reduce fixed labour costs by not remunerating the labour of those in a structurally weak labour market position.
  3. One prominent labour rights charity which is active in campaigning against ‘exploitation’ argues that its use of volunteers does not count as exploitation because it does not accumulate capital. If this were true then it would be a fair argument. However, the problem is that all charities, including those which are not for profit, seek to accumulate capital. Capital accumulation is the expansion of capital overtime, there are of course many forms which the capital expanding can take – not just money-capital. The charity in question seems to have gotten a little confused, and is mistakenly viewing profit and capital as the same thing.

    Capital accumulates through investments in assets such as infrastructure, technical systems and of course human capital. If a charity were not accumulating capital it would fail to reproduce itself and would disappear form the world.

    All charities seek to make such investments, whether, most obviously, by building up reserves in the form of money-capital, or transforming money-capital into other forms of capital such as property (such as by purchasing an office or new IT systems), systems of production (such as developing their supporter network so as to increase future revenues), and of course human capital (through employing more staff in order to increase capacity or to retain valued staff members by increasing their remuneration). This means that charities are not only in the business of collective capital accumulation, but if they are paying staff wages above subsistence (or in other words above a living wage) then they are also fuelling private capital accumulation – meaning that those at the bottom of the charity sector labour market are being exploited in order to increase the capital accumulation of those at the top.

    I agree that if a charity were not accumulating capital then it would be unreasonable to expect it to be paying its staff, as it would be fighting for its very survival but if a charity is accumulating capital by building up its reserves, investing in property or resources both physical and human then it is hard to argue that it is acting justly. Especially, when we consider the wages of some directors and senior managers of even leftwing charities – an indirect result of the savings made from not paying those at the bottom .

Charities claim that to end the exploitation of interns and volunteers would mean a massive reduction in opportunities for people looking to enter the sector. This seems as unlikely as the claims of employers at the time that the national minimum wage would cause mass unemployment. The truth is that interns and volunteers are carrying out core functions which must be done, at the moment they can just be done for free – so they are! Paying interns and volunteers would not only reduce exploitation but would make the charity sector more egalitarian as it would force the redistribution of wealth from those at the top to those at the bottom.

The launch meeting of ‘Justice for Interns / Volunteers’ is taking place at School of Oriental and African Studies, Room B104 6pm-8pm Wednesday 18th July .