Asking students to pay to volunteer is fundamentally unfair

Economic conditions force many to make mercenary decisions with their time

No good deed goes unpunished. Photo: Chris Ho/The Peak

By: Jessica Garcia, SFU Student

One of the benefits of being a university student is building relationships within the institution — especially for students with academic aspirations. However, as neoliberal austerity claws further into all facets of our lives, everyday living expenses, the rising costs of tuition, and the subsequent necessity to engage in the precarious labour necessary to even remain in university — much less attend its events and opportunities — are making it increasingly difficult for students to balance the books.

Which is why I was so dismayed by an email calling for student volunteers for the annual Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) conferences. The event, held in Vancouver this year jointly with the American Anthropological Association, is quite a big deal within the discipline, and purportedly a good opportunity for students. 

However, a detail in the call for volunteers struck me. Students wanting to volunteer were first asked to become CASCA members for the student rate of $25. They would then have to pay the student rate to attend the conference, an additional $80. For those keeping track: in order to volunteer for this conference, students had to pay $105 up front. Students who agreed to work two four-hour shifts (eight hours) would have the $80 conference fee reimbursed. This, however, effectively makes the position less of a volunteer gig, and more of a paid freelance opportunity — one that is notably paying less than the legal minimum wage, at $10 per hour.

When asked by The Peak why students were required to pay in order to volunteer at the event, one of the conference co-chairs, Dr. Pamela Downe, explained that CASCA “is a non-profit organization” that “invest[s] monies generated by [conferences] directly into . . . organizational activities that are overseen by a series of academic networks as well as an Executive Committee, all of which are run by volunteers who tend to hold university faculty or postdoctoral appointments.” Downe went on to say that CASCA also provides “generous provision of travel bursaries and . . . work[s] to facilitate ride- and accommodation-shares” to students who want an opportunity to attend.

While I understand the financial difficulties of running large-scale events as a non-profit organization, there are a few things that I would like to point out from a student’s perspective. 

First of all, being an unpaid volunteer as a university faculty member is arguably less of a financial burden than as a student. After all, faculty members integrated in the workforce already invest a great deal of time in paid employment, making it easier to donate time. However, students, particularly full-time students, devote much less of our time to paid employment. Instead, the bulk of our time is invested in activities that already require us to pay large sums of money. Students are arguably in greater need of being paid for the work that we do.

Secondly, if budgets do not allow an organization to pay students for their time, they should at least not ask students to pay to volunteer — especially not $105. Even if a significant amount of that money will be reimbursed based on  hours worked, many students do not have $105 of disposable income available at any given time. Even as a full-time student with a decent paying job, surprise expenses of even $100 can be the deciding factor in how many meals I can eat in a week.

Finally, anyone with any sort of economic ties to the art world is familiar with the phrase “I can’t eat exposure, Brenda.” This is a critique of labour being requested for the love of it. However, if one’s labour is valuable enough to request it, then it’s valuable enough to pay for. In the current economic system we live in, doing something “for experience” is beginning to take on the same connotations. 

Free labour is a particularly difficult situation for students, but it’s not unique to us. While I have suggested that it is easier for working adults to shoulder the costs of unpaid volunteer labour, the overall experience of selling one’s labour in the capitalist system doesn’t change just because one exists in a slightly higher income bracket. We are all being squeezed by the disparity between stagnant wages and the rising cost of living. This unfortunate reality means that fewer people are able to afford to give their time to unpaid labour — we can’t eat our exposure, and neither can we pay our rent in experience. Capitalism has essentially made volunteering untenable for many people.

The irony in all of this is that an education within the department of sociology and anthropology gives students the tools with which to critique these practices. Students shouldn’t be asked to pay to volunteer at conferences, especially those that may provide valuable experiences for later employment opportunities. But more broadly, as a society we must all be more willing to challenge the economic system that demands people work for less, pay more, and donate their time in unpaid labour to have a slightly better opportunity to claw ahead of our peers.