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.