I didn’t want to write this piece. Not only because it feels tiresome, given how many times I’ve recited these arguments in personal conversations, in the comments sections of job postings, and with fellow decision makers in NGOs, unions, and political parties, but because we’re often told not to speak publicly about the left’s dirty laundry. There is significant value to trying to work through issues internally and reach collaborative solutions. When a group is doing good work, I think we owe them the benefit of the doubt that they’ll address a mistake when it’s pointed out, and then get back to doing good work. But this issue – that of not properly valuing the workers who are doing our justice-oriented work – is so pervasive and often unyielding to internal advocacy, that I’ve gotten kind of fed up and decided to write it out. If nothing else, next time a see a progressive organization post a poorly-paying job, I can respond with a link, rather than a 600 word rant.
In the wake of the Great Recession, it’s refreshing to see more and more discussion of economic inequality and explicit class analysis in politics, mainstream media, and in conversation with even your least-woke uncle. This mainstream shift, along with the relentless work of activists and unions, has led to significant raises for some of the lowest paid workers in Canada and the US. In relatively short periods of time, several jurisdictions have raised their minimum wages to $14 (Ontario, San Francisco) and $15 / hour (Alberta, Seattle). While these wages are still not nearly livable, they represent a huge material and symbolic increase for some of these two countries’ most exploited workers.
Of course there are some workers who are excluded even from these minimums. Chiefly among them are undocumented workers, and those who work in black or grey markets, which go unregulated and provide limited or no protections for workers to assert their rights. Those who work in criminalized sectors, and those whose very bodies are criminalized for working, are often left out of these advances. In some cases all workers can benefit from a general increase in average wages, but criminalized workers are also most vulnerable to inflation. When we’re talking about economic equality, criminalized workers are often left out of the conversation and formal advocacy work.
In a quite dissimilar way, another group of workers are often excluded from conversations about just pay, but rather than ignored and erased as criminalized workers often are, these workers are asked to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good their labour is purported to perform. People who work in non-profit, union, and political spheres, and sometimes in the public service, are often expected to accept low pay, precarious and even abusive working conditions, “for the good” of the clients or the cause they are serving. This piece is about that expectation, and why it’s oppressive and nonsensical.
This view of labour, which hinges the wages of workers on the circumstances of those paying the wages, rather than those receiving them, is inherently capitalist and anti-worker. It pretends that the nature or size of an employer has some kind of material impact on a worker’s ability to pay their rent. And most troublingly, it presupposes that the employer’s “need” to have the referenced labour performed is more important than the worker’s need to live.
This framework often manifests informally, in the sense that it acts as a justification for low wages or bad working conditions, but it’s important to note that it’s sometimes enshrined in labour law as well. Some jurisdictions even legally exempt smaller employers from paying “minimum” wages, such as Seattle, where the $15 “minimum” wage only applies to firms with more than 500 employees. While discriminatory labour laws are not the focus of this piece, this is important to keep in mind in the broader labour justice conversation.
Over the years, I’ve worked in a lot of progressive organizations, in many cases on boards of directors, in elected leadership positions, as a volunteer, and sometimes as a staff member. What never ceases to amaze me is the frequency with which organizations that espouse and embody justice-oriented and anti-oppressive values, frequently exclude their own staff from their view of justice, and even sometimes resort to the same logic that multinational corporations use to justify low wages and anti-worker policies. Here’s where I review the most common justifications I’ve heard from progressive organizations, and why they’re no more convincing when I hear them from an environmental NGO, than when I hear them from everyone’s favourite corporate boogeyman.
“We can’t afford to pay better wages”
You’re almost right, here…but I think what you meant to say was “We can’t afford to get this labour performed”.
No tries to tell their landlord or their phone company “I can’t afford to pay this bill”. (And if they do, they generally expect the response to be: “Okay then, you’re no longer going to be able to live here, or play Pokemon Go”). This shouldn’t be as difficult a concept to grasp as it seems to be, but just like everyone else, organizations need to live within their means. Compensation for workers cannot be considered flexible, depending on how much cash the organization has left after fulfilling all its other priorities. If you’re a justice-oriented organization with staff or considering hiring staff, the first thing you need to do is set out some values around fair compensation, and determine how much various staff roles should be paid. You don’t determine how much you can pay based on how much money you have, rather, you figure out how much you can *do* based on how many hours or positions you can fund at a wage that’s fair.
“This is for a good cause, so workers should be okay with making less money”
I’ve often thought it would do us all a lot of good if those of us in leadership positions of NGOs, charities, and political parties were required to adopt what pop culture has mistakenly taught us is the Hippocratic Oath: ‘First, do no harm’.
Those of us working for positive social change often end up in ethical quandaries, wondering when the ends justifies the means, what can be sacrificed in the name of our Good Cause. I think returning to this simple value of “first, do no harm,” can help guide us. And in case it’s unclear, employing someone in a badly paying job, and expecting them to be okay with it, or even shaming them for speaking up about how it doesn’t meet their needs – no matter the reason for the bad pay – is doing harm.
The Good Cause rationale can sound so reasonable, and is a real stumbling block for many. The thing is, the people you’re paying to show up and administer *your* vision of a “Good Cause” are not doing so because it’s a “Good Cause”. Sure, they may or even probably believe in the work you’re doing as well, but that’s not why they show up on time each morning, answer your after-hours emails, and laugh at your stupid jokes. They do those things because this is the way they support themselves under the crushing exploitation of capitalism. To put it even more directly: it’s their job. This is not their passion project. Again, they may have passion for the work, but the specific role of this job in their life is to financially support themself. They probably do volunteer work in another area of their life. They probably donate money or resources to other organizations. These are all things many of us do in various ways in our lives. Some people even donate to the organization that employs them, but doing so needs to be a fully free choice, and should be discrete from the working relationship they have with their employer. A forced biweekly donation in the form of being chronically underpaid is not a “donation” – it’s exploitation.
Underpaying Good Cause workers, compared with those doing similar work in the private sector, also entrenches and exacerbates inequity. Non-profit and charity sector workers are overwhelmingly women, and, in many cases, disproportionately BIPOC. When we pay workers in these sectors less, we are contributing to the significant pay gaps between white men and the rest of the population. When we actively justify it by the fact they’re doing Good Cause work, we are saying that work isn’t as valuable as private sector work, and we devalue both the goals of our work, and the workers doing it.
“I’m volunteering my time, so why shouldn’t staff?”
Related to the preceding justification, I often hear folks who serve on boards of directors of progressive organizations cite their own volunteer work as some kind of justification for not properly compensating their staff. This can take several forms, whether it be expecting staff to volunteer their own time for the organization (“I know you hit your hours this week, but can’t you volunteer to help out with the event on Saturday?”), or justifying bad pay because “Some of us aren’t being paid at all!”. Again, this is their job – it’s not yours. Does your employer expect you to volunteer your time at your job? Or donate to its operating costs?
This kind of justification is often born of the mindset “we’re all in this together,” in which board members, or excluded management suggest that workers should have the same investment in, and self-sacrificing attitude toward the organization as the elected leadership or managers. This sounds nice, but actually works to try to obscure hierarchy and power in the organization. Workers can’t be expected to have the same investment in the organization, to the point of sacrificing themselves, when they don’t have any of the decision-making power.
I get it. Many of us don’t like the idea of being the boss. It can feel antithetical to liberation and justice work, and often, it is. But if you’re a member of a Board of Directors of an organization that employs people, then you’re a boss, and pretending you don’t have power over people you have power over is not only an abdication of your responsibility, it usually hurts the people you have power over even more.
“If the pay is too low, then why do workers accept it?”
Because capitalism. Because folks need to support themselves, and there is no shortage of exploitative employers paying badly. Do not let the fact that you’re paying more than other low-paying employers be some kind of comfort. No one wins in a race to the bottom.
A Note on Contract Work
As full-time, permanent employment declines, and contract and piecemeal work flourishes, employers benefit from increased flexibility, lower benefits’ costs, and near unchecked control over their workforce, given the difficulty in organizing casual workers. The mass casualization of labour needs to be understood as what it is: a concerted attempt to disempower the working classes, drive down wages and benefits, break unions, and basically treat workers as disposably as possible.
While the casualization of our workforce is an urgent threat to all workers, I personally feel there is a place for contract work in some sectors, and under the right conditions. Some work would be much more difficult to organize under an employment model, and some workers actually prefer to work as contractors, rather than work for one employer on a long-term basis. While contracting is infiltrating many sectors that have traditionally provided permanent, secure employment, such as teaching, journalism, and even food and beverage serving, there are other sectors in which contracting has long been common, and may work best for workers (e.g. musicians, sex workers, tradespeople). Of course just because a sector has long been dominated by contract work doesn’t mean it has to be, or that it is the most just way to organize that labour, but it can be mutually beneficial. My point here is that casualization of the workforce is a huge problem, but contract work in and of itself is not necessarily.
The problem is when labour is converted from stable employment to contract work, because the goal (and effect) is almost invariably to make the worker more disposable. Contract work is inherently unstable and life is more expensive for contractors, meaning workers who make their livings this way need to be compensated for those differences. In Canada, not only do contractors pay the taxes and statutory benefits that employers would otherwise be required to pay (e.g. the employer portion of CPP and 4% vacation pay), as well as their expenses, but they also need to fund certain benefits that many workers have covered by their employer. While a large portion of workers do not receive pensions, parental leave top-up, or extended health benefits, many employers in sectors that are currently being casualized do cover these benefits, so when, for instance, journalism jobs disappear, and a journalist starts freelancing, they are likely trying to cover the costs of these benefits out of their contract rate.
In addition to the fact that contract workers need to pay all their business expenses out of their contract rate, they also need to build in savings to make up for the instability of their work, and the lack of guarantee where the next contract is coming from.
Those of us who use the meticulously calculated “living wages” as guides for the minimum acceptable wage to pay someone, need to remember that the living wage is based on a person having a full-time, stable job. So when a progressive organization says it’s paying a “living wage” because they’re paying an eight hour / week contractor that “living wage” or even a few dollars more, they’re mistaken, because it’s a misapplication of the “living wage” concept to an entirely different labour relationship. The more disposable you’re treating someone and their labour, the more you should pay for that labour. Because that disposability has a cost and it falls on workers.
The moral of this section could be described as follows: if your organization wants to engage a contractor rather than hire an employee because it will be “cheaper” then I guarantee you it’s because you’re not planning to pay the contractor enough. The only reason a justice-oriented organization should be engaging a contractor rather than hiring an employee is because that working relationship better suits the work itself, the amount or schedule of hours or the contractor themselves.
This is where I reiterate that this is an invitation, not an attack. The reason I publicly critique your job postings, and send you private messages begging you to do better, is not because I like calling you out, or am trying to better the job conditions so I can apply (a surprising number of folks seem to think this – hot tip: publicly criticizing a prospective employer doesn’t exactly scream “Hire me!”). I do this because I care about the work we’re doing together, and feel strongly that if we don’t hold ourselves to a standard of justice, we’re not going to be able to sow justice around us.
So, friends, I invite you to do better. I have faith you can.