All Work and No Pay

So I’m counting down my final days here at this station.  I won’t be leaving Costa Rica for a while, though, so it’s not too sad.  Kind of looking forward to a change of scenery, but only for the novelty.  I would never get tired of a place like this.

My next gig will be working for a University-run field station, something much bigger.  More of a complete college campus, in fact.  Which is fine by me.  Working as a volunteer for a private reserve has got me thinking.  Volunteering, or any unpaid work, is a crazy concept.  Call it whatever you want—community service if you’re feeling philanthropic, “internships” if you want to sound academic—it is crazy that we accept this as a legitimate concept.  After sweatshops, it is the closest thing to institutionalized slavery (legally and officially, that is).  And yet many people do it willingly!  How can this be?  How do we justify its existence?

The way I see it, it is a donation.  You donate your effort and time for a cause.  If you volunteer fulltime, you are effectively saying that what you are serving is more important than your own well-being and current place in society.  You are becoming a temporary financial sink. Your net worth is lessening.  And then there’s the fact that you are taking up the place of a potential paid laborer.  So in a capitalist society, volunteers have a strictly negative impact.  They cause demand for work to go down, while still adding to the demand for resources.

Therefore, it is important to volunteer for the right reasons.  Donate time and effort to a cause that cannot support itself otherwise.  That way, you do not replace a paid position.  Also do the kind of work that you can learn from, effectively investing in yourself, increasing your own skills if not your net worth.  Or volunteer in a place where your very presence means something, not just the value of your work.  Go to a country that rarely sees foreigners.  Do a little cultural exchange.  That alone is invaluable.

I only bring this up because we’re in a dry spell, guest-wise.  This is the time of year when the staff Gets Things Done.  Construction.  Retrofitting.  Cleaning.  So us interns are left with little to do but help.  But while we should do our part of the physical chores, and I’m happy to help out, we cannot be expected to do that all the time.  That is not why we are hired, and if so, that is not OK.  Volunteers are not free labor.  And if an employer treats them as such, they are valuing their work very little.

Working for this reserve was great.  But it’s small.   And private.  It is not a community business, or a charity case.  I cannot be expected to clean bathrooms and mix concrete for weeks for no pay.  That is what workers are for.  If they need more help, they should hire more.

I’m not exploited, and I haven’t been.  But my skills are being wasted, especially if they are offered for free.  So a change of locale is due.  I’ll finish my time here, and leave on good terms.  But I need to start studying something again.  Or leading tours.  Teaching.  You know, nature stuff.

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