Susan Dalgety: Volunteering is not the same as exploitation

Revellers at the Hogmanay street party (Picture: PA)
Revellers at the Hogmanay street party (Picture: PA)
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Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and its world famous street party is now as much part of the city’s DNA as the Royal Mile and Morningside matrons.

It is hard to imagine a time when the castle didn’t light up with fireworks at the stroke of midnight on January 1, yet the world’s best New Year celebrations have just reached their quarter century.

In days gone by, hardy Edinburgh folk would gather at the Tron to ring in the New Year, where the only entertainment was a shared bottle of whisky and a kiss from a stranger.

I was a young councillor in 1993 when the then Edinburgh District Council, led by the inimitable Lesley Hinds, decided to make our city the Hogmanay capital of the world.

There were many who sneered at our ambition to host the world’s best street party, warning of everything from drunken riots to damp squibs, but they were wrong. Just as the folk who argued against the use of volunteers at this year’s celebrations were wrong. Now I am all in favour of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Exploitative zero-hours contracts should be binned, and all bosses should be made to pay a living wage.

But the Unite union and the STUC picked the wrong fight when they forced Hogmanay organisers Underbelly to ditch their plans to recruit hundreds of volunteers for this year’s party. Volunteers are the backbone of our city’s community life. Charity shops and food banks depend on the generosity of volunteers to open their doors.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Hogmanay U-turn as volunteers replaced by paid workers

Local galas, junior football teams and campaign groups simply would not exist without the people who give of their time and expertise freely.

And where I live, in Fisherrow, local residents have set up the Fisherrow Waterfront Group to bring the harbour and sands back to life.

These amazing volunteers organise a range of annual events from a Family Fun Day in the summer to a Loony Dook on New Year’s Day.

Google “Edinburgh” and “volunteers” and hundreds of opportunities will come up. The city council even has a volunteering strategy which recognises “the immense value that volunteers add to the social fabric of our city”.

Edinburgh’s prestigious international festivals also use volunteers. The Festival City Volunteers do a minimum of six four-hour shifts during August, welcoming visitors to the city and providing them with practical advice. Their only payment is their bus fares and a free uniform.

READ MORE: Charity pulls support for ‘exploitative’ Hogmanay volunteer programme

So why the outrage when Underbelly tried to recruit volunteer Hogmanay Ambassadors?

The trade unions argued that the new volunteer roles were going to replace posts which were previously paid – a claim that strenuously denied by the organisers. Even the First Minister got in on the act, insisting that volunteers should never be “exploited”.

A fair point, but I hardly think that donning a brightly coloured Hogmanay t-shirt and directing merry revellers to the nearest toilet or night bus stop is any more exploitative than helping run an after-school club, or support refugees – just two of the opportunities advertised by Edinburgh City Council.

And Angela Constance, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, said recently that “volunteering is one of the most wonderful things a person can do.”

I reckon Unite saw a chance to grab the headlines with its campaign against the Hogmanay volunteers, and it was more a PR opportunity than a genuine grievance against volunteering. There are 362 days until the next street party. I hope the city council, Underbelly and Unite sit down long before then and work out a proper scheme which allows volunteers to play a full role in the 2019 Hogmanay celebrations.

They don’t even have to look very far for a model. The Festival City Volunteers offers a ready made template, complete with training. Who knows, I may even volunteer myself.