Always wandering, always lost. Mostly quite happy.
Lately I’ve been writing research proposals to propose studies on issues that I care about. One of the research areas that I’ve listed down is the one in the title: working conditions within the NGO sector in Southeast Asia.
Within the past few years of working and volunteering with NGOs (in Malaysia and regionally), I have had recurring observations of sub-par labour/working conditions that NGO workers are exposed to. While one would assume that we operate with values and principles that are compatible with decent work, it is not uncommon to observe workplaces in the field that fall short of what ILO lists as the criteria for decent work: “work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”
My observations are mainly anecdotal. Here are some stories that I remember from conversations with fellow activists and NGO workers:
- Friend A has been working in his human rights organisation based on some sort of imaginary contract, since months ago. The original, legitimate contract had come to a natural end and there was no move from the organisation to arrange a new one. This puts him in a precarious situation, since they could kick him out without notice and pay, and he would have no legal recourse.
- Friend B reflected that top management within his NGO implied that younger employees should harden up and not demand for work-life balance, since there was no such thing when they fought for the revolution. Attempts to improve working conditions were repeatedly ridiculed, and he got extremely demoralised in the process.
- Friend C was close to a burnout because of the mental demands of his NGO work (he works with high risk populations and is constantly exposed to second degree trauma). On top of that, his work pays him so little that he holds a second job, leaving him no time to rest and recover. There is very little access to mental healthcare within the field, even if it is recognised that workers are vulnerable to psychological and emotional damage. Low pay is also not uncommon.
- Friend D drifts from one informal job to another, as a short term contractor for NGOs within her field. There is no income certainty, and no long term career prospects. While she gets reimbursed for work-related travel, often she is not paid for her time working for various events and workshops. Organisations that she works with have also cheekily asked her to contribute free work because there is no budget item for her role. Constantly working for free has led her to question the value of her work and herself.
These are not isolated incidents. I’ve seen and heard different versions of the same stories over and over again. In general, it is quite regular for NGO workers to receive work-related text messages on personal phones at all hours of the day, weekends, and even vacation time. Oftentimes, workload does not reflect a 40-hour work week, and it is rare to hear of overtime pay. Indeed, a lot of work is offloaded to unpaid interns and lowly paid short term contractors to cut cost. I know of some NGOs that do not cover work-related accidents, and do not provide social security (for example employee provident fund contributions), citing the lack of funding.
Through looking for literature and similar experiences in other parts of the world (since I’ve not found much at the Southeast Asian level), I found this article describing the Lebanese situation: “NGOs in Lebanon: Abusing Their Workers in the Name of Human Rights”. The title expresses the outrage clearly, and this quote from within exemplifies the irony of the situation: “How did we have the nerve to work for women’s social security at a time when the organization consisted mostly of women who lacked social security?”
The Lebanese report interviews NGO workers and mentions many of the labour rights violations that I listed above, leading me to believe that our experiences in the NGO sector have large overlaps. It’s a long read, but worthwhile. What I would like to focus on here are the analyses that it puts forth, which I think are useful in the Southeast Asian context.
Firstly, there is an unclear line between volunteering and work within the NGO sector, which legitimises many violations at work, including low pay, long hours with no compensation, and even dodgy manoeuvres around legal contracts where the employee is paid a lower amount than what is stated to subsidise the organisation’s operational expenses. As explained by an interviewee in the article, “One cannot ask for a raise or adhere to certain working hours or calculate overtime... because one’s work is divided between the job and volunteering.” In other words, the worker’s goodwill and sense of righteousness are exploited to yield more work and fewer benefits than was promised, in the name of working for a higher purpose.
Secondly, the precarious working conditions stem from the structure of the triangular employment relationship that is commonly seen within NGOs. There is the employee, the management, and the funder. While the funder is often absent from the picture, there are a number of things that they do/do not do that lead to exploitative work conditions. Often, they pay based on tasks performed, not the hours of work. Funders often include tasks, duration of contract and salary in model contracts for employees, while other elements such as hours of work, social security, end of service indemnity and mechanisms for complaints are not included. The management of the NGO competes for funding with other NGOs for its own survival, and forgoes its responsibility to ensure good working conditions for the employees – the first thing to be pruned off in cost-cutting measures. In short,
“If exploitation of workers in the private sector involves reducing their share of added value for the benefit of increasing the corporation’s capital and the investors’ profits, exploitation in civil society organizations consists of reducing labour costs (wages and social security) to invest in projects and activities in order to compete with other organizations and attract more funding.”
Thirdly, there is the NGO culture that reinforces the rights violations, since the mindset of self-sacrificing for the cause perpetrates the message horizontally (worker to worker, as opposed to management to worker), that the higher purpose trumps the individual rights of NGO workers. Organising for worker’s rights within the sector is therefore uncommon.
It is dispiriting to be in a disempowered position where the only way to work for the cause that you care about is to sacrifice your own well-being. There has been a lot of talk surrounding “self-care” to avoid burnouts in the sector. I believe in the importance of that. However, more important is the idea that change needs to happen at the organisational level, without putting the burden of caring for oneself solely on the individual. For where is the room for self-care, when the working conditions themselves do not permit rest and recovery? Where decent work seems to be theoretical at best, and mythical at worst?
Surely it is in our best interest to protect those who are protecting the world, so that they can sustain their good work for the long term. I would say that it is a priority of the highest order to respect and dignify our NGO workers with proper working conditions, so that the sector can lead by example when it is championing for rights of any kind. Anything less would be tantamount to hypocrisy.
Approximately three months ago I found myself in a work party in Bangkok, feeling vaguely out of place as I do, when I was accosted by a guy with a disarming smile.
"Do you want to play games?" He asked.
Trying not to lift my eyebrow and probably succeeding, I smiled back and nodded. Why not.
We found a corner in the party, sat down, and arranged our beers. With no further small talk, he whipped out a colourful little contraption. It was a 3x3 Rubik's Cube, which not only had the colours, but also bits of Thai characters in every segment. Party Guy flashed me another grin. And proceeded to teach me, in basic English, the principles of the Rubik's Cube, and how I might eventually solve it.
This would turn out to be one of the most educational parties that I've been to. After I was satisfactorily equipped with the basic foundations of solving the Rubik's Cube, we moved on to teaching me Go. Party Guy was a willing teacher to a willing student, and eventually we attracted a table of geekier ones and our table became the soul of the party. Ahem. (Ok fine it didn't. The cool kids continued to be cool, and our Go table continued playing Go.)
I got myself a Cube a couple of weeks later. Tinkering with it, I quickly realised that while Party Guy had taught me some basics, those basics were not enough for me to actually solve the puzzle with mine own brains. A little disappointed, I decided to look for answers on the Internet.
The Internet informed me that it is possible to solve the Cube with a universal solution - with a set number of stages, one after another. According to the official Rubik's Cube website,
Getting help with solving the Rubik’s Cube is not cheating. There are 42 Quintillion possibilities, but only one correct solution. Hence without knowing how to solve a Rubik’s Cube it is nearly impossible.
How much is a quintillion? You might think that it is a straightforward answer, but it isn't. According to Dictionary.com, the Americans and Canadians take a quintillion to be 1 followed with 18 zeroes, while in Europe (including the UK) it is 1 followed by 30 zeroes. I'm not sure where Malaysia stands on this. Anyway, the exact number of possibilities is actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 - so I guess we're on American count here - slightly disappointing, until you see a visualisation of a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 pennies:
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I found the universal solution, and started working on it. There are six stages, and at every stage you aim to accomplish a certain goal (for instance, making a white cross on one of the surfaces is the second stage.) It is simple enough to solve the problem with the manual, since anyone can just follow the set of instructions carefully, and complete it step by step. Right layer clockwise, left counterclockwise, upper clockwise, that sort of thing. The larger challenge (which also anyone can do, with a sufficient amount of stubbornness), is to internalise and memorise the patterns, to do it without referring to the manual.
Let it be known, that March 6, 2018 is the day that I was able to solve the Rubik's Cube, reliably, without referring to the manual.
Thank you, thank you :D It took me three months, but it was all worthwhile.
Actually I'm not sure if it's worthwhile. The solution of the Rubik's Cube, the one relying on the universal method anyway, is really not so much about creative brain work than rote memorisation; and as it turns out, it's more about doing the same thing over and over again than anything else. (And I suppose, recognising certain recurring patterns, but I don't think that's the main thing.) The thing is, you practise the first few stages much more since you have to keep doing it every time you start over or mess up, and oftentimes, you don't get far enough to finish everything. And since I rarely got up to the point where I could continue to the next stage, I just got stuck at Stage 4 for the longest time, and beyond that I would have to refer to the instructions.
Until yesterday, when I finally decided to sit down, use a pencil to break down the moves on paper in a way that I could memorise it properly, that I graduated. Meaning to say, if I had done that a month ago, I probably would have tried to write this post then and it would have been buried under a pile of broken drafts in my state of writer's block. So I guess everything happens in due time, for a reason.
And if I can't claim to be smarter after the whole process, at least I can claim to have had the perseverance to finish it. Maybe after a certain point I might try to dream up my own algorithm to make it more efficient (Google's supercomputer has concluded that you only need a maximum of 20 moves to solve any combination, and that is known as God's Number)... but as of now, I'm happy where I am, playing with the cube whenever I feel fidgety, with the knowledge that I can see it through from beginning till the end without relying on instructions.
I still don't know why Party Guy chose me to impart his Rubik skills, as we didn't talk much before or after the party. I don't even remember his name, except that it starts with an S. It's like he came into my life, dropped a combination bomb of the Cube and Go (which I'm also learning now), and left.
So, as I was saying. There was a sudden windfall of time and a suffocating obligation to use it wisely. There was an urge to be creative yet coherent, but the deluge of ideas and possibilities were paralysing. At the same time I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole of existential doubt, which shook the foundations of my free-spirited learning approach, which if you remember, was never about productivity or efficiency. In fact, now that I think about it, it is really mostly about self-indulgence.
The question is, if something is done purely for fun, is there meaning in it? If it doesn't lead anywhere?
I had a skarty (Skype Party) with dear Robert yesterday and we discussed it. As usual, he knocked some sense into me in the gentlest, Robertest way ever. He gave me a Dutch proverb. "It doesn't go forward, it doesn't go backwards, it just goes." And then he backed it up by saying, "I've picked up tennis lately. Do you think that there's any meaning in hitting a ball to and fro repeatedly except that it's fun?"
The conversation really was pretty full of Roberty wisdom but, as how skarties go, an hour and a half in I had had enough of wine to not remember very much of what we discussed. Except that I was nodding my head, thinking, "This makes so much sense, I have to remember it!" I should start taking notes of drunken conversations discussing the purpose of life. Who knows how many revelations I've had and forgotten.
Anyway, going back to before Robert's intervention, I was in the midst of going through the ten thousand things that I was doing and reading to see if I could derive any inspiration for writing. As it turns out, Elizabeth Gilbert with her book Big Magic may have given me the breakthrough that I needed.
So Gilbert's book addresses many points and is one of the best pep talks in book form you'll ever get as a creative person - so hurry out and get yourself hooked up with it. But it is her central idea about "Big Magic" that gave me a way (or two) to think about my problem of having a finger in every pie. First, is the pretext, on ideas as "disembodied, energetic life-forms".
I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.
Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. (I’m talking about all ideas here – artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political.) When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration. You might miss the signal because you’re watching TV, or shopping, or brooding over how angry you are at somebody, or pondering your failures and mistakes, or generally really busy. The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments; perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realises that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.
But sometimes – rarely, but magnificently – there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. Your defenses may slacken and your anxieties may ease, and then magic can slip through. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession). The idea will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path, to keep your interest keen. You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.
And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”
Outlandish, but I love the thought of it. Ideas flitting around like elves, prodding people with their fairy-dusty little fingers, "Do you want to work with me? Do you? Do you?"
So, there are two ways to think about this. One is that my confusion is created by too many idea fairies buzzing around me, jostling each other trying to get my attention, and it all becomes a big confusing mess of prodding fingers and squealing voices. I can't separate the signal from the noise. I should be thankful that they looked me up and knocked on my door, but I also have to figure out how to find enough of chairs so that every fairy gets a seat. Or, given that my figurative house has only a finite number of seats (like 8), I have to figure out which ideas I should collaborate with and which I should let go respectfully, so that they can go find another better human collaborator.
Now the other possibility, based on the same assumption that ideas are fairies, is that there is one particular idea fairy that I'm waiting for, who hasn't arrived yet. While all my interests and projects do not seem coherent or lead anywhere in particular, it is possible that I'm just creating the conditions for the Fairy to come, so that one day there will be something that only an academic mutt and hobby philanderer such as myself, with the exact mix of interests and knowledge that I've accumulated, can create. In the meantime I just have to be patient and trust that the little fella will find his way - and when he finally arrives, we will co-create something that the world has never seen before.
Which one is it? Does it matter, if both are based on imaginary fairies that happen to be idea-bearing little worker bees?
It's raining outside, and I sense that I've come to an end to this two-part series. I'm again staring at my empty coffee cup (wistfully - it was a really good one), but this time I feel lighter. Sign of better times to come?
I'll leave you with this piece of music which tune and lyrics gave me goosebumps. I had it in the background a lot when I was writing. Ignore the exaggerated closeups of the audience, focus on the music.