In general, most of the respondents judge the policy measure as unfair. Still, 18 out of 51 respondents judge the measure as fair. In this section of the article, we use Boltanski and Thévenot’s worlds of justification to shed more light on the ways in which workfare volunteers judge the obligation to volunteer, and the reasons why they judge it that way. Our analysis will answer the question to what extent the shift from the former policy context (characterized by personal interest, voluntariness, and possible remuneration) to the current policy context (characterized by collective interest, obligation, and possible penalties) is perceived as fair or unfair by workfare volunteers’ and we will explain their judgments. Each subsection below starts with a short description of the respective world of justification, followed by analysis of the valuation process regarding fairness of the policy and changing perception of volunteer activities illustrated by relevant excerpts from the interview transcriptions.
Market World: No Free Money
According to Boltanski and Thévenot (2006), money is the measure of all things in the ‘market world.’ The desire of people to possess and deserve scarce supplies through money is the driving force behind their actions. People enter into relationships of exchange and transactions. In the market world, the price of something or someone’s efforts is a proof of value, and this value is expressed in money. In other words, matters of material redistribution (and conditions for this) are on the forefront.
Out of 51 respondents, five of them view mandatory volunteering straightforwardly from this ‘market world perspective’ (see Table 2). Just as the general public, they argue that nothing comes for free and that a shift from voluntary to mandatory CSO participation is reasonable. These workfare volunteers consider a welfare benefit without a mutual obligation between benefit provider and recipient as ‘free money,’ so doing something in return makes redistribution policies fair in this perspective. Janet (56) explains:
At home I was taught that you have to work for your money. I do not see my allowance as a hand-out, but as a salary. Now they are saying: anyone who receives a welfare benefit should do some volunteer work in return. I think that is only fair. (female, 56 years, unemployed for over ten years)
Since this category of workfare volunteers perceives social justice in terms of redistribution, ‘getting free money’ is especially perceived as unfair for the ‘taxpayer,’ i.e., those who perform work for a salary. Interestingly, their valuation of their activities legitimizes volunteering in a very specific way. Having to volunteer makes them see their benefit as a ‘salary,’ which also enables them to perceive their volunteer activities as ‘work.’
This category of respondents is critical of other welfare clients who are not arguing in line with their quid pro quo reasoning: ‘I was brought up to believe that you don’t get something for nothing in life, but others apparently think quite differently sometimes. They just say, I’m not leaving the house for that, you know’ (male, 57 years, unemployed for over 10 years).
Reasoning that volunteering is a legitimate demand because in the market world nothing comes for nothing, is in line with the arguments of Mead and Dworkin, for whom the work ethic is a central pillar of their conception of redistributive social justice.
Market World: No Free Labor
Judging from the same ‘market world perspective’, another five respondents (different people from the respondents mentioned in the previous subsection) came to a seemingly opposite conclusion about mandatory volunteering policies. In a market world, competing with each other in a fair way is worthy behavior (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). People compete for profit, positions, and goods, earning their money in an honest way. However, it is regarded unfair (for workers and for competitors) when (public) entrepreneurs force their workers to deliver public or commercial goods without a material reward.
Workfare volunteers judging the new policy from this side of the ‘market world perspective’ perceive social justice in terms of the maldistribution of labor. They conclude that it is unfair, since they have to do unpaid work that is likely to replace the work of current paid employees (often in the public sector) whose job may be under threat by austerity regimes and budget cuts. While these respondents are already hesitantly doing unpaid work at a CSO, the shift from a focus on individual employability to a collective interest is seen as a catalyst of ‘unfair competition’ with low-paid and low-skilled workers. This lack of attention for the material interest of themselves and other economic vulnerable groups disturbs them. Especially middle-aged workfare volunteers judge the new policy this way. Freddy (48) judges ignoring his material interests in the new policy regime as ‘slavery’ and feels ‘stupid’ complying:
At some point, in all those retirement homes you will find only volunteers; they get rid of paid staff and the volunteers start marching in. I’m a small fish, and this is how they keep the small fish stupid. In a way I’m supporting the big fish, because management is not cutting back on their own salary, are they? If you really need a volunteer why not employ someone? Obviously, you need workers. (male, 48 years, unemployed for over ten years)
Janet (56) also points to the unfair competition between unpaid and paid workers: ‘But the danger then is, of course, that you will get a lot of volunteers who are doing work that really ought to be paid work, and they are going to be in competition with paid staff’ (female, 56 years, unemployed for over 10 years). These judgments show that from their perspective the new policy devalues their own volunteering, since now they are no longer valued as volunteers but a threat to paid staff.
In sum, from a market world perspective workfare volunteers can judge obligation either as very fair or as very unfair. But why do workfare volunteers who judge the policy measure from a market world perspective come to such contradictory conclusions? In the market world, redistribution is central, but an important question for workfare volunteers seems to be ‘redistribution of what?’. The difference between perceiving the situation as receiving ‘free money’ or as doing ‘free labor’ is determined by how they perceive social justice: as redistribution of money or redistribution of labor. Both perceptions call to mind a different ‘other.’ Those who see the ‘taxpayer’ as most relevant other, judge the obligation to volunteer as fair, while those who see ‘low-paid, low-skilled workers’ as most relevant reject this policy as unfair.
Civic World: Recognition of One’s Contribution to Society
Among 13 of the 51 respondents, the policy shift toward mandatory volunteering triggers a ‘civic world perspective.’ The civic world ascribes more value to the community than to the individual, i.e., the collective interest transcends the interests of the individuals that comprise it (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). A community consists of peers who jointly and unselfishly strive for a collective purpose. The more general the purpose, the greater value the civic world ascribes to it. Whoever contributes to the efforts to achieve unity increases in value in the civic world, in which social equality is a core value.
Respondents approaching the expiration of voluntariness from this ‘civic world perspective’ formulate the most positive response to the policy shift, by judging that their activities at the CSO are increasingly recognized as relevant for the public interest (see also Fraser 2000). The shift enables them to increase the value of their activities by aligning them with paid work; they told us their activities are different, but just as meaningful as paid work or even more important. For example, Elif (29), a Turkish-Dutch woman, who volunteers at a horse riding school for mentally disabled children, values her activities as something that ‘really matters’ and ‘something more real than a desk job’ (female, 29 years, unemployed for 5 years).
They also agree with moving away from voluntariness toward a more obliging character of activating welfare policies. From a civic world perspective, freedom is of great importance, but social unity and social contributions are held in even higher regard (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006, p. 187). Hence, obligation is legitimized on the grounds of taking part in a collective effort for the benefit of ‘society.’ Again, it matters who they have in mind as ‘the other.’ In many cases, these ‘others’ are other welfare clients, who are accused of not contributing to society. Respondents applying a civic world perspective consider the policy transition as fair, because other welfare clients who are supposed to ‘lack a certain mentality’ can no longer avoid their responsibility for contributing to a public interest. At the same time, the new policy is considered fair by this category of respondents, by recognizing their own contribution in the present and past.
For young people, I do think it’s okay [this mandatory volunteering]. After all it’s easier for them. And they still have a completely different… mentality in that area, as far as work is concerned. I think it’s okay to make them do something. For older people I think you have to look at the individual circumstances. (female, 62 years, unemployed for over ten years)
This narrative joins seamlessly with the findings of a recent study on responsibility (Veldheer et al. 2012), which shows that the majority of Dutch citizens agrees with the principle of personal responsibility, but that most people also believe they already take enough responsibility for themselves and that it is mainly other people who fall short (i.e., those who are supposed to fall back on benefits all too easily) to contribute to society. In our sample, we found this line of reasoning especially among respondents of 45 years of age or older. From a civic world perspective, the mandatory volunteering policy framework with a focus on them as a responsible asset for the collective feels fair to them. The reason for their judgment is that it supports their belief that everyone needs to contribute to society, so ‘others’ are no longer allowed to withdraw from their responsibility. Not because everyone needs to contribute to society as a way of redistributing responsibilities (they themselves do not want to do less, for instance), but because contributing to society offers people indispensable recognition. Older workfare volunteers seem to experience the policy shift toward a more obliging framework with a focus on the collective interest as recognition for their own contribution and it triggers an image of the non-contributing ‘other,’ mostly youngsters, for whom more obligation is necessary.
World of Fame: Misrecognition of One’s Status
Another five respondents consider the policy transformation from a ‘world of fame’ perspective. In the world of fame, a person feels valued by the extent to which others value them (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). People are sensitive to the opinion of others, or the public opinion in the world of fame. Status is important and is confirmed by praise and compliments from others. Visibility is an important condition for getting attention, encouragement and hence appreciation.
Respondents applying this ‘world of fame perspective’ argue that the obligation to fulfill mostly low-valued societal demands (by volunteering at a CSO) is unfair, since it affects how they are valued by relevant others. These respondents perceive the shift toward a more obligating framework as unfair if it decreases their freedom of choice for a suitable activity with the appropriate intellectual level. When this condition regarding freedom of choice is not met, workfare volunteers consider obligation as a denial of their status and as an obstacle to be proud of their achievements. For example, Theo has been volunteering as an art teacher at a community center for people with psychiatric disorders. He sees the obligation as a possible restriction of his freedom to teach a certain level: ‘I’m fine with giving an etching workshop, but only to people who are already familiar with the technique. I’m not going to do beginners, (…) because they have neither the skills nor the intelligence’ (male, 50 years, unemployed for over 10 years). So, informants judging the obligation from a ‘world of fame perspective’ consider the obligation to volunteer as a threat to their status, since it might force them to take on inferior tasks. This threat changes their idea of the way people view their activities.
The same holds for ending remuneration under the new policy framework. All workfare volunteers we spoke to worry a lot about marginalization and oblivion. Respondents applying the ‘world of fame perspective’ often consider remuneration as a safeguard against marginalization, because they experience a premium as ‘a token of recognition and appreciation’ (male, 56 years, unemployed for 10 years). Hence, ending remuneration risks ending appreciation. Oblivion and marginalization are being feared in the world of fame. Banality and indifference of others affect a person’s dignity (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006, pp. 184-185).
The importance of recognition is in line with the work of Fraser (2000), but there is also a material side to it. Remuneration in the form of money offers workfare volunteers the opportunity to improve their status and appearances. Therefore, cutting a remuneration for volunteering is especially considered as unfair since it increases the risk of being looked down upon by relevant others. Even though financial remuneration does not appear as high in absolute terms, workfare volunteers expect that cutting payments will undermine their status. Especially among middle-aged women, the ending of remuneration and the threat of possible penalties are perceived as unfair and as misrecognition of how they value their appearance: ‘Because you are going to work somewhere, you don’t want to go looking scruffy. We already don’t have much money to spare and now we don’t have this little bit extra either’ (female, 56 years, unemployed for over 10 years).
Just like respondents using the ‘civic world perspective,’ those respondents applying a ‘world of fame perspective’ are strongly concerned about fairness toward themselves. However, the difference is that the former perspective is mostly represented by respondents perceiving rewards and feeling valued, while ‘the world of fame’ perspective mostly represents people who experience misrecognition in terms of their freedom of choice, status and appearances. The reason that they perceive the policy measure so differently is that the latter have a different ‘other’ in mind than the people judging the measure from a civic world perspective: people they come across in daily life, instead of other people on welfare that do not contribute.
Domestic World: Misrecognition of Care Tasks
In the domestic world, one’s value depends on one’s position in the community (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006, p. 164). The domestic world focuses on the interdependence and loyalty in domestic and familial relationships. It is characterized by hierarchical inequality and in that sense it is different from the civic world in which equality is a core value. The value of the position that a person occupies within the hierarchy is determined by relationships with others who appreciate him or her. Qualities that are valued are discretion, loyalty, punctuality and hospitality (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006, p. 166). Again in contrast to the civic world, dependence within a community is important in the domestic world. This dependence is not something that someone needs to be ashamed of. The family circle may be limited to family, but may also include other relatives, such as friends, neighbors or the local community a whole.
The nine (out of 51) respondents approaching mandatory volunteering from a ‘domestic world perspective’ experience it as highly unfair. Their loss of ‘income’ by the termination of previous remuneration for volunteering is experienced as misrecognition of their responsibility to care for their family. In light of this sometimes very demanding responsibility, any requirement to volunteer in return for welfare benefits (without additional remuneration) is considered as a very unjust claim on their precious time (cf. Fuller et al. 2008). A typical example is Inge (42), who has been working at a home care facility on a voluntary basis while experiencing a lot of stress because of the care for her autistic son and suicidal daughter. Now that remuneration for her volunteering has ended, she feels that her priorities lie with her children. However, the risk of being penalized (by diminishing welfare benefit payments) is still there. She explains:
Look, I feel like all welfare clients’ situations are just lumped together. That’s not right. I know there are more people like me, for whom the situation at home hardly allows them volunteer. Some people experience more stress than others. The law does not take this into account. (female, 42 years, unemployed for five to ten years)
Ending remuneration sharply reduces the value of volunteering for those who judge the new situation from a ‘domestic world perspective.’ While before they were able to value volunteering as a way to provide for their children, ending remuneration makes them view volunteering as a distraction from caring for their children. The reason for judging the policy measure as a form of misrecognition instead of maldistribution is again ‘the other’ our informants have in mind. To those who are judging the situation from a ‘domestic world perspective,’ the meaningful ‘others’ are their children or other family members who are their first priority. Our informants do not believe their care responsibilities should, for instance, be more equally distributed; they feel society misrecognizes the importance of their care responsibilities. A policy transition to mandatory volunteering is very likely to erode the fulfillment of this priority and is therefore considered as unfair (see also Brady 2011). When thinking about other people on welfare benefits, Inge thinks that there are some people that ‘should certainly be convinced to do volunteer work,’ but she feels the situation at home and the strength of that particular person should be decisive in that matter.
Inspired World: Misrecognition of Passion
Number five in the six worlds of justification of Boltanski and Thévenot is the ‘inspired world.’ This world ascribes value to inspiration (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006, p. 159). Value is attributed to individuals who strive for perfection through inspiration and happiness. In the inspired world, value manifests itself as a feeling or passion, which spontaneously comes from within. The ‘inspired actions’ are motivated by an intrinsic desire to create, and certainly not by money.
A relatively large share of our respondents (n = 14) adopts an ‘inspired world perspective.’ Regardless of policy, their most important reason to volunteer at a CSO is to have the opportunity to engage with something that moves them. The direct opposite of their idea of inspiration would be to do something they consider as mind-numbing. Workfare volunteers in this response category especially disagree with the shift to obligation. Obligation evokes associations with obstinacy and therefore conflicts with their image of volunteering as a passion and a road to inspiration. These associations evoke a fear that their wishes and ambitions will be neglected in volunteering when imposed by welfare benefit suppliers. Obligation is considered as being counter-productive, because being required to do something against their will, is going to make them unhappy.
People should be given the chance to do something that is in their nature, so to speak. Not something that doesn’t interest them. It would be illogical to oblige me to volunteer as a captain on a ship, while that doesn’t suit me at all. Even though I am a big fan of Popeye [laughs]. (male, 44 years, unemployed for five to ten years)
Unlike in the ‘world of fame’ perspective, in the ‘inspired world perspective’ the judgment of others is inferior to listening to your ‘inner self.’ People should not be afraid of the pain that goes with condemnation by others. Uncertainties are appreciated and therefore the ‘inspired’ are looking to take the risk of being judged (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006).
The obligation also affects workfare volunteers’ perception of their volunteer activities. Before the policy transition, these workfare volunteers ranked the activities as second best behind inspiring jobs. They are afraid that under the new policy, mandatory volunteering (up to 20 h per week) becomes a hindrance to find paid employment that really excites them. Obliged volunteering feels like being forced in the wrong direction, especially because previous efforts to improve individual employability have been discarded in the new policy:
I would rather have them investing in me by training me for a teaching job, than making me do volunteer work. If I was trained, I wouldn’t need to ask for help any more. Now all I can hope for is a job at Blokker or Hema [warehouse retailers], if they think I’m not qualified enough. (female, 29 years, unemployed for one to five years)
We found this emphasis on limited advantages of volunteering for one’s labor market opportunities, especially among younger workfare volunteers. Older respondents were far less outspoken on this matter and seemed to anticipate a prolonged workfare volunteer ‘career,’ since they are convinced that their chances to re-enter the labor market are very low.
The reason for judging the policy measure as unfair is not a matter of redistribution, but a matter of misrecognition. The policy measures invoke them to imagine another ‘self’ that is obligated to do something he or she does not want to. They are not afraid of the judgment of others, but they are afraid to misrecognize their own ‘true’ self.