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NGO Workers Lament The Problem With Short-term Contracts

A group of women undergoing a healthy food awareness training in Bubi, Matebeleland North (Lovejoy Mutongwiza)

In recent years, the use of short-term contracts has become increasingly common in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, leading to concerns about worker exploitation and abuse.

According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), short-term contracts are often used by NGOs to avoid providing permanent employment and benefits to their staff, leading to job insecurity and low wages.

Workers on short-term contracts are often not provided with basic employment rights, such as sick leave and holiday pay, and are at risk of losing their jobs at short notice.

According to the report, NGOs are among the worst culprits when it comes to using short-term contracts. This is particularly true in the areas of humanitarian aid and development, where NGOs often operate in conflict and post-conflict environments and require short-term staff to respond to emergencies.

The ILO report also reveals that the use of short-term contracts hurt the quality of services provided by NGOs.

Workers on short-term contracts are less likely to receive adequate training and support, which can lead to poor service delivery and compromised outcomes for the people they are meant to serve.

Too often, workers on short contracts are made to believe that they are volunteering. There is an unclear line between volunteering and work within the NGO sector, which legitimizes many violations at work, including low pay, long hours with no compensation, and even dodgy manoeuvres around legal contracts where the employee is paid a lower amount than what is stated to subsidize the organization’s operational expenses.

“One cannot ask for a raise or adhere to certain working hours or calculate overtime… because one’s work is divided between the job and volunteering.” Tanaka Muchapondwa, an attaché at girls’ rights organization says.

In other words, the worker’s goodwill and sense of righteousness are exploited to yield more work and fewer benefits than was promised, in the name of working for a higher purpose.

In addition, precarious working conditions stem from the structure of the triangular employment relationship that is commonly seen within NGOs.

There is the employee, the management, and the funder. While the funder is often absent from the picture, there are several things that they do/do not do that lead to exploitative work conditions. Often, they pay based on tasks performed, not the hours of work.

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“Given that grants are mostly yearly I think short-term contracts are viable and do not give unnecessary hope to the incumbent. Most of these NGOs especially those that deal with human rights do offer services to outsiders whilst their staff and workers are at the receiving end.

“Some even end up not paying their employees indicating no resources but then there is a grant which is supposed to pay the employees. The working environment is not user-friendly given you cannot inquire when your money is coming. Because of autocratic leadership, you get reminded that there is nothing you can do since the organization will be owned by that person you report to,” Addington Muchenje, a social worker told this publication.

He added that this kind of treatment does not boost the morale of workers, instead, it demilitarizes them.

Typically, contracts for employees, while other elements such as hours of work, social security, end-of-service indemnity and mechanisms for complaints are not included.

The management of the NGO competes for funding with other NGOs for its own survival. It forgoes its responsibility to ensure good working conditions for the employees – the first thing to be pruned off in cost-cutting measures.

“If exploitation of workers in the private sector involves reducing their share of added value for the benefit of increasing the corporation’s capital and the investors’ profits, exploitation in civil society organizations consists of reducing labour costs (wages and social security) to invest in projects and activities to compete with other organizations and attract more funding,” says Tinashe, a worker with a local NGO.

To make matters worse, there is the NGO culture that reinforces the rights violations, since the mindset of self-sacrificing for the cause perpetrates the message horizontally (worker to worker, as opposed to management to the worker), that the higher purpose trumps the individual rights of NGO workers.

Organizing workers’ rights within the sector is therefore uncommon.

It is dispiriting to be in a disempowered position where the only way to work for the cause that you care about is to sacrifice your own well-being.

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There has been a lot of talk surrounding “self-care” to avoid burnout in the sector.

Miriam Masango* (not her real name) who works at another well know organization, is of the view that the issues of worker exploitation which is turning out to be a form of sanitized modern-day slavery,

“Institutions are taking advantage of employee desperation to gain experience or secure a decent job.

“Those seeking to build experience are played at the card of voluntary work in which most cases the intern is burdened with meeting the financial costs over transport, food just the basic upkeep,” she said.

For some, the treatment that workers are getting in the NGO sector does not provide a good work-life balance and is devoid of job security.

“Most of these contracts exclude some key benefits such as medical aid and/or funeral cover. Basically, these short-term contracts come with a huge workload that does not allow the balance of work and personal lives. Working in the local NGO sector is the same as in modern-day slavery.

“Some of these local NGOs do not adhere to what they stand for. The welfare of their employees does not really matter to them. Employees are underpaid and there is a violation of workers’ rights. Most of these employees have no option to stick around in toxic environments because of high unemployment rates,” Linda Mangirazi, an ex-employee of a human rights organization.

NGOs have defended the use of short-term contracts, arguing that they are necessary to respond to emergencies and that they provide workers with flexibility and the opportunity to gain valuable experience.

However, critics argue that this is a false economy that leads to worker exploitation and a lack of accountability in the sector.

Meanwhile, the ILO report calls for greater regulation of the use of short-term contracts in the NGO sector, including the establishment of minimum standards for employment rights and the provision of adequate training and support for workers.

It also recommends that NGOs work more closely with trade unions and other workers’ organizations to ensure that their staff are treated fairly and with respect.

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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