Peak body says payments could undermine Australia’s volunteering culture
23 January 2020 at 4:32 pm
Volunteering Australia says the bushfire crisis has raised important issues about the nature of the nation’s volunteer workforce
Australia’s peak volunteering body is warning of the “unintended consequences” that could arise from paying volunteers, following the federal government’s announcement of a compensation scheme for volunteer firefighters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced late last month that volunteer firefighters will be able to apply for up to $6,000 in compensation from the federal government, to cover lost wages and income while fighting the fires.
While noting its support for improved funding and resourcing for the volunteering sector, Volunteering Australia said in response to the scheme that future government action to resource the emergency services volunteer workforce needed to be well planned and thoroughly considered.
“We need to ensure that national volunteer policy responses do not undermine the culture and the ethos of volunteering by introducing financial considerations that could be considered a wage or salary,” the response said.
“Ideally emergency service organisations would have the resources available, including the ability to provide appropriate training, equipment and clothing, and the ability to manage the volunteer workforce so that no volunteer requires financial compensation, beyond ordinary out-of-pocket expenses.”
Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone told Pro Bono News the national crisis had demonstrated the power and value of volunteering, but also raised important issues about the nature and composition of the volunteer workforce and how we support it.
She said the compensation scheme was not perfect, and not a precedent for the future.
“Moving forward we will need to have some whole-of-community conversations to get medium- to long-term solutions in place that do not present barriers for people wanting to get involved,” Picone said.
Volunteering Australia said there was a range of options that should be explored to strike the right balance of support and resourcing for volunteers, which won’t “undermine the spirit of volunteering or bring about unintended consequences”.
Picone noted that a key component of volunteering was that it was done “without financial gain”.
“Once we start to introduce payments or incentives, then it changes the very nature of volunteering and becomes a whole different conversation,” she said.
“Volunteers give their time for free, but they should never be out of pocket or disadvantaged in any way by their volunteering.”
The compensation scheme currently offers volunteer firefighters up to $300 a day in lost wages, but does not cover people who volunteer on their days off.
Employees of bigger businesses, retirees or pensioners, and people with paid leave available are also not covered.
Volunteering Australia said it wants to support the government and key emergency management agencies and organisations to implement “the most appropriate response and policy setting for volunteer emergency responses in the future”.
The peak body will seek a meeting with the social services minister before the prime minister goes to the upcoming Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in March.
“We want to hear from the emergency service volunteer sector to understand the impacts of financial compensation for volunteers, particularly considering the challenges in some jurisdictions in recruitment and retention over the next year leading into the next fire season,” it said.