Should Aid Workers Unionise?


The way of the future?

Sometimes spending half your life online can be very depressing. You’re inundated with content from millions of sources some of which is brimming with insight, originality and wit. Inevitably, however, most of what you see is inane nonsense, repetitious news stories or tired memes.

It is with great delight and surprise that, every so often, someone will ask a question or post an article that sparks deep in the cynical, over stimulated recesses of your brain which genuinely blindsides you. One of these came to my attention earlier today,

I was wondering if anyone had started a post on the need for an aid workers trade union. Anyone interested? We are one of the least regulated parts of labour world wide – which is kind of ironic when you think how much time aid workers spend (or a supposed to spend) on working for rights. Has anyone heard of initiatives on this? In particular for issues like health insurance and travel insurance and collective deals etc?

(Click here for the full post on Aidsource)

I had never thought about this before. I don’t know whether this reflects more badly on the political culture of my generation or rather more personal failings; regardless, I find the prospect intriguing.

I have written before about the issues surrounding unpaid internships, a practice that is very prevalent in international development. There are other people who have been campaigning on this issue – I recently came across Interns Anonymous, a great platform for discussing such issues built for the people facing them – with a relatively high level of profile in recent months. The Guardian have taken up this issue more than most large newspapers, inviting people to send in their experiences (anonymously) as well as highlighting the possible legal ramifications of the practice in an article late last year.

While many are sympathetic with the problems of entry-level (or rather, sub entry-level) workers in development, personally, I’ve found that most people higher up in the food chain tend not go much further. Almost all of them had to go through the same process – as they often point out – and, now they’re past the years of unpaid work phase, regard it as a sort of right of passage.

This may seem a little heartless but it might come down to the fact that, even though they might have progressed several stages along their career paths, the stability of their jobs and incomes probably hasn’t increased that much from their days as volunteers – particularly not in relation to their peers who chose to pursue jobs in more established fields.

Professionalising the humanitarian sector is a cause championed by some illustrious development bloggers (links at the end of this post) – as an introduction, read this post on Tales From The Hood who put forward the case for ‘Professional’ over ‘Amateur’ approaches rather well. It seems to me, like an excellent idea, but difficult to implement because there is no centralised organisational body within which the ‘professionalisers’ can agree on the most useful process to take us from here and now to a fully professionalised sector. Some sort of body that gets workers to collaborate and cooperate to ensure they can work effectively and are rewarded for that, something that protects its members from other actors who destabilise or weaken the sector.

Something, in short, quite a lot like a trade union?

(Thanks to Grace Bahng – who tweets here – whose post I pinched most of these links off…)



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