Taking advantage of volunteers

Few endeavours can give that sense of satisfaction which comes with volunteering, be it for a charity, for school or church, or for the community.

New Zealanders have always been big on volunteering and take pride in their support of others. Who could ever forget the emotionally charged and highly successful quasi-annual Telethons of the 1970s and ’80s, which raised millions of dollars for worthy causes, including St John Ambulance, children, and people with disabilities.

It comes as no surprise then that Kiwis are among the world’s most generous people. According to a Gallup World Poll, New Zealand was sixth when it came to volunteering time for charities between 2009 and 2018, with 41% of the population involved. Sri Lanka led the list on 46%.

There’s an old army joke about selecting a volunteer. As the sergeant says "all volunteers take one step forward", the quick-witted members of the platoon take one step backwards.

Fortunately, a lack of eager volunteers has never really been a major, ongoing problem in this country, though there is always room for more.

It is easy to see why New Zealand is so good at volunteer work. Any country with such a small population and pockets of people living in isolated areas because of the rugged terrain is likely to foster a strong sense of community togetherness and the goodwill to want to help others.

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this altruism out of choice.

A sparsely populated nation means less money to go around when it comes to providing services essential to keeping communities viable. So, while Kiwis are very good at supporting others for the right reasons, they have also been forced into it by a lack of central backing and constrained finances for critical, even life-saving, skills and amenities.

Something seems very wrong somewhere in New Zealand HQ when paltry tax cuts to win votes take priority over properly funding some of the organisations which save Kiwi lives every day.

Expensive infrastructure which is falling apart and services which are struggling or closing are not going to be remedied by populist tax cuts. That puts even more, and unfair, pressure on volunteers and volunteering efforts.

If we want to have the modern transport networks, the pipes and grids, the education and health sectors, and the emergency services which other First World countries enjoy, taxes actually need to be raised, dare it be said.

Instead, we find ourselves stuck in this funding void, where we are beholden to the continuing generosity of volunteers. That is certainly not just or ideal, particularly when volunteer firefighters and Hato Hone St John officers are daily lifesavers and frequently exposed to danger and the constant threat of mental trauma and fatigue.

A Waikuku Beach volunteer firefighter dampens down hotspots following a disastrous fire at Loburn...
A Waikuku Beach volunteer firefighter dampens down hotspots following a disastrous fire at Loburn earlier this year. PHOTO: JOHN COSGROVE
The injustice is especially obvious when it comes to volunteer firefighters, of which there are 11,832 across the motu. A just-released independent report written for the United Fire Brigades’ Association by Esperance Capital calculated the efforts of their volunteers, who make up 86% of all New Zealand firefighters, save the government an astonishing $823 million a year.

Association chief executive Bill Butzbach pointed out that without these volunteers "New Zealand’s emergency response system would collapse". Such dire warnings come on top of damning reports of the inability of our civil defence and emergency management organisations to cope with disasters from natural causes, in one of the most hazardous countries in the world.

For the heroes they often are, volunteer firefighters are treated very badly in many ways.

They do not get the same training or equipment as their professional colleagues. They do not get the same uniform or fire-fighting vehicles.

Most inexcusably, they receive less health and safety cover when on the job, less support for rehabilitation, and, to our shame, ACC does not cover mental trauma or chronic workplace injury because their efforts are considered to be a leisure activity.

That cannot continue unchallenged. Quite simply, it is a stain on our country’s reputation to treat them like second-class or lower workers.

We need to remember that the phrase "taking advantage" has strong negative connotations too.