Is There Such A Thing As ‘Free Labour’?

kate_collynsI am currently trying to arrange a fringe session looking at volunteers, skilled labour and apprenticeships at the Organic Research Centre’s Producer Conference (27th-28th January 2016); mulling over several issues that I’ve been pondering all year. On the one hand, I did a two-year apprenticeship (see my Soil Association blog here), and know the value of training, experience and mentorship when it comes to training up people for a new career. On the other hand, as a grower runnning a (very) small business, the idea of someone a) working for free sounds great on the face of it, or b) already trained up and competent is also attractive, ie needing less management time or training. In reality, actual labour falls somewhere along this sliding scale, of ‘free’ labour or volunteers, through low-skilled but paid-for workers and trainees eager to learn more, to highly skilled and experienced (usually more expensive) paid labour.

There are pros and cons of each type of course. ‘Free labour’ or volunteers rarely exist as just that (and why should they?): the reasons why people volunteer are varied: some want to gain work experience or skills in the short or medium term; some are filling in time between jobs or other commitments short-term; others are retired or otherwise independently wealthy so happy to be involved in a project they believe in (could be short, medium or long term); plus many others in between. New volunteers will need managing, especially very inexperienced people who may do more harm than good to your crops or plot; this is time you could have spent more profitably elsewhere on your own. Overall however, I think volunteers can be a great thing; as long as you, the grower or manager, have the right expectations. This is the important bit. Volunteers will (and should) expect something in return I feel; whether it’s skills and experience, to then go on and become a skilled and paid worker; being part of a group; making contacts; simply enjoying the work and being good for the soul (in which case it’s an idea not to give them all the rubbish and monotonous jobs to do); getting food/board in return (usually while also learning too, such as Wwoof)… Whatever the ‘reward’ is other than money, it’s probably not a great idea to view volunteers as ‘free labour’, as this can lead to volunteers feeling used and undervalued; and not staying for long. Plus there is a danger that if an industry or business relies on volunteers, it’s not sustainable, and gives food-growing and farming a repuation of being non-essential, a lifestyle choice or hobby, rather than a fundamental need such as health and education (would we expect our schools and hospitals to be filled with volunteers?). Skilled, paid-for workers and businesses employing them could be undermined by too much free labour and go out of business.

Trainees and apprenticeships are essential in an industry where the average age of growers is in the 50s-60s; a local food system will not exist in a few decades unless we seriously increase new entrants. However new trainees and apprentices don’t always have much experience (that’s why they’re doing the apprenticeship doing, after all), and will need some management and mentorship. However as dedicated, paid-for labour, they are committed, enthusiastic and often pick up skills quickly. Plus they often cost less than already skilled or trained workers; but as paid-for workers they are usually more reliable than volunteers.

Highly skilled and experienced workers are of course great: they need little management, take on lots of responsibility, and are very productive. However they are (and should be) at the top end of the labour costs spectrum, so can be a difficult option for small businesses to choose when looking at budgets. Like many things, it comes down to time and money: have you enough time to manage or train volunteers or trainees, and even redo some of their work/mistakes? Or is your time too precious and valuable, in which case perhaps a skilled employee is a better option?

In an ideal world, it would be great to take on all three types of labour of course: having enough money to pay trained people well, freeing up some of your time to dedicate to training up the next generation of growers, and allowing anyone who wanted to volunteer to be part of the family too, who may then be inspired to sign up to an apprenticeship. This I think is the goal; the real challange is trying to work out which type or combination of types of labour will get us there.


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