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The vital difference between volunteer and unpaid work | Nadi Bellaoui

Authorities in the Haut-Rhin have voted to make benefit payments for the long-term unemployed conditional on seven hours of volunteer work a week. The RSA – paid to those with no other source of income – is €524 a month for a single person. Nadia Bellaoui is head of the Mouvement Associatif, which represents non-profit organisations across France. Here, she tells Connexion why she opposes the decision

THE VERY nature of volunteer work is in the name – it must be entirely voluntary, it cannot be obligatory.

The minute it becomes obligatory, it becomes unpaid work. And why should anyone in France do unpaid work? And in particular, why should the very poorest people be forced to do unpaid work? Work should always be paid.

This decision by Haut-Rhin is illegal. The conditions of eligibility for RSA are set at national level, and include nothing about volunteer work. The Minister for Work, Myriam El Khomri, has already said that implementing this decision would require a change in constitutional law, and that the government has no intention of doing this.

This is a way of stigmatising a section of the population who are already in a precarious situation and poor. This is a dangerous move because it sets people against each other.

It is a false debate, designed to fracture society. It is a form of attack and encourages the public to stigmatise the poorest in our society as “lazy”.

One of the first associations to react was ATD Quart Monde (“Agitate for the dignity of the Fourth World”). Fourth-world is a term used to describe people living below even third-world standards, or people in first-world countries with third-world living standards. ATD’s work is to de-stigmatise poor people, to insist that they have the same rights as everyone else – to consideration, dignity, and respect.

This debate overlooks the important questions we should be asking. We approve of large “productive” companies making cars and profits and pollution but there are 14million volunteer workers in France, and they fill the equivalent of a million full-time jobs. People, mainly women, are doing millions of hours of unpaid domestic work every year. And this voluntary and domestic work is not just unpaid, it is completely invisible.

People doing this work are described as “non-productive”. But it is an incredible resource, a massive wealth for France, easily on a level with large manufacturing companies. This is what we should be discussing.

Associations do not want unwilling volunteers. That is why even students, who often volunteer to get experience, are not forced to do so as part of a course. Charities are not social workers: their mission is not to re-insert people into the world of work. What are they going to do with forced volunteers who do not want to help but are obliged to have a certificate saying they have volunteered?

Associations must be free to accept or decline volunteers. Work that is truly voluntary can be an effective passport to paid employment. It can give people new skills, expand their personal and professional networks, and increase their self-esteem. So we would support any move from the authorities to encourage (but not oblige) people to do voluntary work, to connect volunteers with associations, and to support voluntary workers.

What do you think? Is it fair to make claimants to do voluntary work in exchange for benefits?
Is it good to force this experience on them? Tell us your view at

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