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Voluntary work

Abuse of volunteers

A little while ago I wrote a blog about how beautiful it is to do volunteer work and how easy it is to travel around the world that way without spending a lot of money. There is a downside as well. There is a lot of abuse of volunteers. A lot of organisations see them as ‘free labor’ they don’t have to give anything back to.

So if you are going to volunteer, read reviews and take a good look what the organisation you are going to work for is actually offering. Just by doing the last you can already pick out a lot of ‘bad guys’. On for example there are a lot of hostels asking for help for a minimum of five hours a day. In return you get your bed and a discount on the meals. So you end up spending money on food, while you are working a decent amount of hours for the bed you are sleeping in.

Internships are tricky as well. The idea of an internship is that you actually learn a profession. Something you have benefit of in the rest of your life. It’s like going to school. You pay a fee, put in your working hours and in return you get knowledge. The organisation will teach you skills. The first project I worked on in Nicaragua I had three colleagues who worked as an intern. They paid 320 US dollars a month for their food and stay in a homestay and for their ‘education’. A homestay gets 50 US dollars a week, so 4,5 weeks a month is more or less 225 dollars. Leaves almost a 100 dollars for education. In the four months I was there, we had one workshop and that workshop was mainly about when to inform the boss and what to solve ourselves. There was really not anything educational in it. More organisations work like this. They offer internships, but instead of offering the interns anything, they make money of the interns.

I am pretty much against paying when I do voluntary work. I bring in my knowledge (marketing, photography, making videos, social media, massage therapy, yoga, blogging, web design) and I bring in working hours. I think that covers my food and stay easily. I put in 15.000 US dollars worth of work in my first three months at the first organisation I worked for in Nicaragua, if that organisation had hired me as a freelancer. They provided me a bed and gave me food, worth not even a thousand US dollars. I think the organisation had a good deal.

I do understand that you have to pay if you learn a new skill. A friend of mine went to India through Habit for Humanity to built houses for people who couldn’t afford a house themselves. She is a nurse and a yoga teacher. She had never built a house. In a case like that, I totally understand.

Watch your hours

The last thing you have to watch is the amount of hours you work. Four a five hours is standard in exchange for your food and stay. Of course when there is a lot of work, it is normal you put some extra hours in; as long as it is not structural and/or you ‘get them back’ on days it’s not so busy. But I know people who worked through and had to work eight hours a day. Every day; picking fruit. Their bed was in a shitty, leaking tent and the meals were so small they couldn’t sleep at night, because they were so hungry. Yes; they could leave when they wanted. The nearest town was just a hundred kilometers away and there were no busses going and there was no other transportation. So they needed the owner of the fruit farm to drop them off. Of course he had no time.

One more time back to my first project in Nicaragua (the worst I ever had); the interns were working six days a week, ten hours a day. That is sixty hours a week, where the deal was 35 hours a week. As I already said they paid a shit load of money to do this work. And what was their reward? They were just shouted at all the time. Nothing they did was good enough and they were told all the time they didn’t work hard enough. One of my co-workers put it this way: ‘When she (the boss; jk) comes in, the office turns into a culture of terror and I’ve never been so gravely disrespected by anyone.’  The truth is: the interns were actually running the day-to-day activities of the place. Without them the whole thing would have fallen apart. 

So if you are going to do voluntary work: 

  • check what the organisation offers
  • read reviews
  • see if you can contact some people who have been working there
  • make sure you have an email with what your task is and how many hours you have to work and what you get in return
  • leave if you are not getting/doing as promised

Don’t worry

But don’t worry. Most organisations are really good ones. I have done a lot of voluntary work all over the world and I have had only one real bad experience. So I can still recommend it. Just make sure you know what you are in for.

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