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Welfare to Work in Contemporary European Welfare StatesLegal, Sociological and Philosophical Perspectives on Justice and Domination$

Anja Eleveld, Thomas Kampen, and Josien Arts

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781447340010

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447340010.001.0001

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Left in limbo: social assistance recipients’ evolving views on the fairness of workfare volunteerism

Left in limbo: social assistance recipients’ evolving views on the fairness of workfare volunteerism

(p.237) 11 Left in limbo: social assistance recipients’ evolving views on the fairness of workfare volunteerism
Welfare to Work in Contemporary European Welfare States

Thomas Kampen

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on social assistance recipients’ evolving views on the fairness of being summoned to do volunteer work by Dutch local authorities. This ‘workfare volunteering’ is often considered the best alternative to – but also route towards – paid employment. Building on Nancy Fraser’s work on recognition and redistribution as well as Boltanski and Thévenot’s ‘worlds of justification’ framework, this chapter reveals how social assistance recipients’ perceptions of ‘workfare volunteering’ change over the course of their involvement as volunteers. While many social assistance recipients initially judged the obligation to do volunteer work as unfair, the meaning many found in their voluntary positions reversed their initial judgements. But over time – especially as the lack of sustained guidance left them as far away from the paid labour market as ever – they came to see workfare volunteering as deeply unfair. The chapter aims to further our theoretical and empirical understanding of social justice from the perspective of the subjects of welfare-to-work policies.

Keywords:   Workfare volunteering, Welfare, Mutual obligation, Othering, Recognition, Redistribution


Welfare policies in Western countries are increasingly based on notions of reciprocity and activating the supposedly passive recipients of social assistance (Serrano Pascual, 2007). Citizens receiving welfare benefits are prodded to give back to society by doing volunteer work, by participating in welfare to work (WTW) programmes, or by showing their willingness to work by applying for jobs. Policy makers often frame these imperatives as necessary and fair (Kampen, 2014).

Policies to ‘activate’ the unemployed are hardly new. Welfare to work has been with us since the beginning of the 1990s and was adopted as a key part of the European Employment Strategy in 1998 (Triantafillou, 2011, p 4). What is new, at least in the Netherlands, is the shifting of the other end of the reciprocal relationship, i.e. from improving one’s own labour market position to contributing to society. This means that policies that once aimed to improve individual employability are being replaced by quid pro quo measures that ensure people are meeting their obligations towards society (Kampen, 2014).

Previously known for its generous benefits, the Netherlands has developed into one of the more conditional welfare states (Becker, 2000; Nannestad, 2007). Broad public support for policies that emphasize the duties of social assistance recipients (Veldheer et al, 2012) has over the years produced policies similar to those found in the UK (Wiggan, 2015; Whitworth, 2016) and Australia (Warburton and Smith, 2003). The Wet Werk en Bijstand (Work and Assistance Act) of 2004 paved the way for ‘workfare volunteerism’ (Kampen et al, 2013), allowing local authorities to demand unremunerated work from social assistance recipients. This ‘volunteer’ work is often considered the best alternative to – but also route towards – paid employment. In (p.238) line with the policy rationale presenting welfare as a two-way street, popular views have also been changing. The idea of social assistance recipients giving back to society is increasingly popular among the Dutch general public (Veldheer et al, 2012) as is, more generally, the idea of balancing rights with responsibilities (Van der Veen et al, 2012). Unsurprisingly, research on the experiences of various vulnerable groups has revealed that increased conditionality disempowers social assistance recipients (Edmiston et al, 2017), experienced as a devaluation of their contributions to society, both in interactions with welfare institutions and in their daily lives (Edmiston, 2017; Garthwaite, 2017; Povey, 2017).

The growing literature on workfare volunteerism tends to be critical, largely due to its mandatory nature. Some scholars claim that the obligation to ‘volunteer’ disempowers participants by making them feel dependent and controlled (Goul Andersen, 2002), disrupting their sense of agency (Owen, 1996; Bessant, 2000) and autonomy (Warburton and Smith, 2003). Other scholars are more concerned about the impact on the community and claim that being obliged to volunteer undermines positive feelings towards the community, thereby discouraging active contribution (Warburton and Smith, 2003), the internalization of altruism and responsibility (Sobus, 1995; Stukas et al, 1999; Yeatman, 2000; Van Echteld and Josten, 2011), and people’s future willingness to volunteer (Stukas et al, 1999). Others are critical of the obligatory dimension because of the lack of choice (Warburton and Smith, 2003; Levy, 2006) and voice (Knijn and Van Berkel, 2003) that accompany the apportioning of tasks to ‘volunteers’.

Nevertheless, some studies have (also) pointed to workfare volunteerism’s positive effects. Doing voluntary work can bolster social assistance recipients’ confidence and sense of autonomy (Cohen, 2009), while recognition for activities outside of the paid labour market can reduce their sense of social marginality (Fuller et al, 2008). Volunteer work can also make social assistance recipients more employable (Cameron, 1997; Cress et al, 1997; Reitsma-Street et al, 2000), helping them to access new networks and accumulate social capital (Crick, 2000; Soupourmas and Ironmonger, 2002; Roberts and Devine, 2004).

Although numerous scholars have focused on how policies affects the behaviour of social assistance recipients, extant research has largely neglected how workfare volunteers themselves judge the fairness of policies. By exploring how Dutch social assistance recipients perceive the fairness of being compelled to volunteer – their reasons why as well as how their perceptions change over time as they experience workfare volunteering first-hand – this chapter will further our theoretical and (p.239) empirical understanding of social justice from the perspective of the subjects of WTW policies.

The chapter begins by discussing theoretical perspectives on the social justice of workfare volunteerism. After outlining the research methods, the main part of the chapter analyses the social justice of workfare volunteerism from the perspective of social assistance recipients subjected to the policy. We will see that Dutch workfare volunteers’ perceptions of fairness change over time, depending on their experiences in the assigned work, on their interactions with the welfare officer, and with the significant others they have in mind when making judgements.

The social justice of workfare volunteerism

The policy rationale behind workfare volunteerism connects liberal and communitarian views with mundane financial inevitability. From a liberal perspective, workfare volunteerism can be seen as fair redistribution since material rewards end up in the hands of those who contribute, thereby discouraging ‘free-riding’. One influential thinker who supports this argument is Lawrence Mead (1986, 1997). Mead argues for conditional welfare benefits as it is unfair to ‘tax the hardworking for the benefit of those who are equally capable of hard work, and equally talented, but choose to laze around instead’ (quoted in Wolff, 2008, p 19). Mead believes that the majority of the worst-off will not act in the interests of the collective unless they are forced to do so. For Mead, displaying a strong work ethic is the main requirement to be eligible for financial support.

John Rawls’ theory of justice provides a very different way to think about workfare volunteerism. Rawls argues that ‘all social primary goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any, or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored’ (Rawls, 1971, p 303). Although Mead and Rawls arrive at opposing conclusions, both treat welfare as a matter of redistribution. Following Rawls’ argumentation, one could possibly support workfare volunteerism, but for very different reasons than Mead. In Rawls’ reasoning, workfare volunteering may serve as a way to redistribute opportunity and self-respect.1

Other scholars who have studied workfare in terms of redistribution conclude that it is unfair (Neville, 2003; Moss, 2006; Sawer, 2006). It does not recognize unemployed persons as former workers and taxpayers, and risks displacing people with regular jobs, while strategies (p.240) to avoid having to volunteer can encourage illegal activity (Neville, 2003; Moss, 2006; Sawer, 2006).

When fairness is judged from a communitarian rather than a liberal perspective, recognition becomes the dominant currency (Fraser, 2000). According to Fraser, a just policy recognizes individuals as ‘full partners in social interaction … capable of participating on a par with the rest’ (Fraser, 2000, p 113). Workfare volunteerism can be viewed as a policy that enables people to be recognized as a ‘full partner in social interaction’ and to ‘participate on a par with the rest’, making it justifiable from a communitarian perspective.

But other scholars arguing from a communitarian perspective point out that having to perform work-like activities for relatively small amounts of money is tantamount to misrecognition of a person’s status or even dignity (Fuller et al, 2008). Policies can also lead to the misrecognition of the status and dignity of social assistance recipients who do not participate in workfare programmes, as they can be labelled ‘inactive’ and thereby as the ‘undeserving poor’ (King, 1995; Soldatic and Meekosha, 2012, p 142). Policies may even misrecognize people’s citizenship when they discourage the unemployed from claiming welfare benefits or encourage people to drop off the welfare rolls (Goodin, 2002, p 592).

In short, workfare volunteerism is partly in line with communitarian thinking as it embraces a vision of striving towards meaningful social participation for all. But some communitarian thinkers also fear it risks misrecognizing the status and dignity of social assistance recipients. Workfare volunteerism also fits strands of liberal thinking as it requires all citizens to participate in work-like activities. But liberal thinkers may also see it as unfair, for instance when it enables local authorities to implement drastic budget cuts by using additional free labour or by replacing paid workers with ‘volunteers’.

How would workfare volunteerism be judged from a republican perspective? In republican thinking, non-domination – which requires minimizing the exercise of arbitrary power – is the yardstick according to which policies are judged (Pettit, 1997; Lovett, 2010). Relationships between workfare volunteers and welfare officers or work supervisors should (1) not be characterized by high exit costs, and (2) any imbalance in social power should be constrained by effective rules. Where rules fall short, discretionary power should be kept in check through effective oversight in order to prevent the exercise of arbitrary power. The main questions from a republican perspective are therefore whether the exit costs are too high for workfare volunteers to quit their participation in (p.241) welfare to work programmes, and whether arbitrary power is exercised over them. This chapter turns to the experiences of workfare volunteers to answer these questions.

In addition to asking how people experience the fairness of workfare volunteering, they were asked how their experiences as volunteers shape their judgements and how their judgements change over time. In previous work, it was found that workfare volunteering can lead to empowerment and employability in the short run, but to disappointment in the long run (Kampen et al, 2013; Kampen, 2014). In recent work, the focus was on how people judge the fairness of the policy on a particular moment in time without paying attention to how their views evolve (Kampen et al, 2019). The temporal dimension is important because how workfare volunteers judge the fairness of the policy may change over time as a result of their accumulating experiences.

The presentation of the findings relies on the conceptual framework of Boltanski and Thévenot (2006), who identified six interpretative frameworks through which people judge a situation or action to be fair or unfair. Boltanski and Thévenot’s ‘worlds of justification’ allow us to discern workfare volunteers’ normative interpretations of their experiences and enable deeper analysis of the fairness of the policy by bringing to light why people consider it to be a matter of recognition or redistribution.


A total 125 in-depth interviews were held with 66 individuals in five Dutch municipalities. The decentralization of welfare policy in the Netherlands means that municipalities employ different policy instruments. At the outset of the research in 2009, municipalities were free to choose whether they wanted to oblige, remunerate or otherwise encourage social assistance recipients to participate in workfare volunteering. In choosing the municipalities in which to conduct research, maximum variation was sought in their welfare to work policies.

The cooperation of municipalities was crucial in reaching potential respondents. As social assistance recipients must inform their contact person when they begin volunteer work, municipalities were able to produce lists of workfare volunteers. Municipalities were requested to contact 218 people by letter, inviting them to participate in the research. In an attempt to prevent selection bias, the letter was printed (p.242) on university letterhead. The letter requested potential respondents to contact the municipality if they did not want to be approached by a researcher, which 24 did. The remaining 194 persons were contacted by telephone. The aim was to include meaningful variation in the sample: in age (28–64 years), ethnic background (49 Dutch, 6 Moroccan, 4 Turkish, 1 Iranian, 1 Iraqi, 1 Chinese, 1 Surinamese, 1 Dominican, 1 Polish and 1 Romanian), gender (40 men, 26 women), years of former employment (0–40 years), duration of unemployment (2–33 years), and voluntary sector (10 neighbourhood, 9 cultural, 12 educational, 10 advocacy, 15 care). Examples of volunteer work included assisting at the information centre on neighbourhood renewal, volunteering as an attendant at a museum, reading to children at an after-school care facility, and playing games with the residents of an elderly day-care centre.

Thirty (of the 194) people did not answer the phone; 98 were unwilling to participate, expressing lack of interest or research fatigue. In-depth semi-structured interviews were held with the remaining 66 individuals. Although the non-response rate is high, it likely does not influence the findings as the reasons given for not participating did not bear on people’s judgements of workfare volunteering. The high non-response rate limits generalizability, but this was not the main aim of the qualitative inquiry. Given the focus on a single country and a small number of municipalities, the external validity of the findings is limited. Nevertheless, the interviews revealed patterns in, and the breadth of, participants’ views on workfare volunteering.

In the interviews, respondents were asked about their past and current experiences with paid work, living on welfare, reintegration and volunteer work. What they expected from doing volunteer work and from those around them, including volunteer organizations, other volunteers, welfare officers and employers, was also discussed.

The interviews took place between 2009 and 2013. An attempt was made to talk to all informants two or three times – with six months to a year in between – to observe how their judgements of workfare volunteering changed over time. When respondents were approached for the second interview, one person had moved abroad while the lives of some had seriously deteriorated. Unfortunately, one person was deceased, one had been admitted to a mental health institution and one was in rehab, illustrating the vulnerability of people on welfare and how social rights underpin human well-being (Dean, 2015). This vulnerability was taken into account throughout the course of research, for instance by being sensitive to respondents’ wishes regarding the time and place of interviews.

(p.243) Thirty-one of the remaining 62 persons immediately agreed to a second interview; 19 were initially hesitant, considering another interview too confrontational (because their lives had not proceeded as hoped) or unnecessary (because nothing had changed). Nine of these 19 hesitating persons ultimately agreed to be interviewed again after it was made clear that their decisions were respected and that their stories were in any case valuable for the research. Forty respondents were interviewed for a second time. Selection bias is arguably negligible since they expressed similar reservations to those who declined a second interview.

Of these 40 respondents, 21 could not be interviewed for a third time because they had changed phone numbers (2), had reached retirement age (3), felt research fatigue (5) or saw it as too confrontational (11). The remaining 19 respondents were willing to sit down for a third interview. The risk of selection bias was limited by asking those who agreed to a third interview about their considerations in granting the request. While most also felt another interview was confrontational, they prioritized participating in the research over these feelings. While gratitude was extensively expressed in the interviews, no material rewards were provided.

The interviews were conducted in respondents’ homes and lasted between 30 minutes and two hours. All interviews were transcribed (verbatim) from audio files and analysed with the qualitative data software program Atlas.ti. Special attention was paid to workfare volunteers’ normative views on their rights and responsibilities. As experiences with and expectations of welfare officers emerged as a key theme when analysing the data from the first round of interviews, the subsequent analysis specifically focused on respondents’ relationships with their welfare officers. To ensure anonymity, all informants are referred to using pseudonyms.

In the beginning: ‘unfair’ for many reasons

At the outset of their volunteer work, most respondents (45 out of 66) thought that being compelled to volunteer was unfair; only 21 thought the policy was mainly fair. Within the framework of Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) ‘worlds of justification’, reasoning associated with the ‘market world’, the ‘inspired world’, the ‘world of fame’ and the ‘domestic world’ was prominent in the first round of interviews. Each subsection begins with a short description of the respective world of justification, followed by illustrative excerpts from the interviews.

(p.244) Misrecognizing one’s true self

In the first round of interviews, more interviewees (n = 14) adopted the inspired world perspective than any other. In the inspired world, people who happily strive for perfection are valued, while ‘inspired actions’ are motivated by the intrinsic desire to create; inspiration comes spontaneously from within and is immeasurable (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006, p 159). Persons in this response category were especially unhappy with being obliged to volunteer, which by making them unhappy was considered counterproductive. Obligation evoked associations with obstinacy and conflicted with their image of volunteer work as a possible road to inspiration. These associations made them fear that their wishes and ambitions would be neglected in workfare volunteering:

‘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 5‒10 years)

With regard to the type of volunteer work, respondents judging the policy from an ‘inspired world’ perspective were against doing anything that was not in line with their future aspirations. Most of them aspired to find employment in the cultural sector, some in the agricultural sector. They also worried that obligatory volunteering would hinder their chances of finding a paid job that really excites them. Their liberal thinking on this matter foregrounded their personal development; they thus experienced workfare volunteering as prodding in the wrong direction. Especially respondents below 50 years of age emphasized the limited advantages of volunteering to increase their prospects on the labour market; those older than 50 were largely convinced that their chances to re-enter the labour market were limited anyway.

From an inspired world perspective, workfare volunteering was judged to be unfair because it misrecognizes the passion of one’s ‘true’ self. In the inspired world, the judgement of others takes a backseat to listening to one’s inner self, while the idea of workfare volunteering invokes another ‘self’ that is obliged to do something against its will.

(p.245) Misrecognizing care for others

Twelve out of 66 respondents approached workfare volunteering from a domestic world perspective. In the domestic world, the value of people depends on their position within hierarchal relationships in domestic life and how others appreciate them; loyalty and interdependence within a community are highly valued (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006, pp 164–6).

Interviewees judging workfare volunteering from a domestic world perspective viewed it as highly unfair, mostly because it misrecognizes their responsibility to care for their families. Demanding responsibilities at home made any requirement to volunteer feel like a very unjust claim on their precious time (compare Fuller et al, 2008). One interviewee had to take care of elderly people at a home-care facility while experiencing heavy stress at home from caring for her autistic son and suicidal daughter. Her priorities were with her children and she felt that volunteering got in the way of fulfilling her real responsibilities. She explained: “The situation at home does not allow [me] to volunteer. In theory it sounds nice, but I mean in practice one person can experience more stress than others. The law does not take this into account” (female, 42 years, unemployed for 5‒10 years).

Interviewees judging workfare volunteering from a domestic world perspective especially resisted the idea of doing volunteer work in the care sector, since they experienced first-hand how demanding care work can be. They expected it to undermine their ability to fulfil their care tasks at home, with their meaningful ‘others’ being their children and other family members. They therefore considered it unfair (compare Brady, 2011). Especially its obligatory nature was seen as misrecognition of their existing care responsibilities, while the remuneration was considered to be only a temporary relief for their financial problems. Members of this response category considered workfare volunteering as a matter of misrecognition, not maldistribution. They did not believe that their care responsibilities should be more equally distributed, but felt that society misrecognized the importance of their existing care responsibilities.

Misrecognizing fear of humiliation

Five out of 66 respondents judged workfare volunteerism from a world of fame perspective. In the world of fame, a person feels valued to the extent that others value them. People are sensitive to the opinions of others, and their status is confirmed through praise and compliments. In order to get attention, encouragement and appreciation, it is important to be visible to others (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006).

(p.246) Respondents judging workfare volunteerism from a ‘world of fame’ perspective argued that it endangered how they are valued by their relevant others. They perceived workfare volunteerism as unfair when it entailed activities that did not correspond with their educational level. An interviewee who was required to volunteer as an art teacher to people with psychiatric disorders explained: “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 ten years).

Humiliation, oblivion and marginalization are feared in the world of fame. Being looked down upon, banality and the indifference of others affect a person’s dignity (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006, pp 184–5). Some interviewees worried about marginalization and oblivion, especially how both affected their appearance. Participating in a workfare volunteering programme ran the risk of others looking down on them: “Because you are going to work somewhere – you don’t want to go looking scruffy, you want to look a bit smart. We don’t have much money to spare” (female, 56 years, unemployed for over ten years). Some respondents felt too ashamed about their appearance to volunteer out in the open: ‘They ask you: “Do you do volunteer work?”, as something you should be doing, as an obligation. What do you expect? What do you expect from someone who has been isolated for years and is burdened by shame, who feels humiliated, denied, and treated unjustly?’ (female, 45 years, unemployed for 5‒10 years).

For these respondents, positive freedom of choice was more important than negative freedom. In other words, they cared less about being obliged to volunteer since they felt the need to counter their marginality. But they did experience problems with not having the (negative) freedom to decline volunteer work ‘below their status’. Having to perform lowly valued jobs was seen as highly unfair as it affected how other people saw them.

Distorting a fair distribution of labour

In the market world, money is the measure of all things. The driving force behind people’s actions is their desire to possess and earn scarce supplies; they compete for profit, positions and goods and enter into relations of exchange. The price of something or the financial reward for one’s efforts is proof of value, and this value is expressed in money. It is worthy to compete fairly with one another. Matters of material (p.247) redistribution (and its conditions) are at the forefront in the market world (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006).

Interviewees judging workfare volunteering from a market world perspective often depicted their activities as ‘free labour’. But having to work for free was not their main concern as they received a benefit in return. It was being a ‘free employee’ that concerned them most. This was seen as unfair, since by doing unpaid work they would likely replace current paid employees. They thus considered workfare volunteerism to be a maldistribution of labour:

‘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, right? If you really need a volunteer why not employ someone? Obviously, you need workers.’ (Male, 48 years, unemployed for over ten years)

Compulsory as well as remunerated volunteering was perceived as unfair, especially in sectors that experienced the replacement of paid workers by volunteers like the care and cultural sector. Participants quite bluntly described mandatory volunteer work as ‘slavery’. For those judging the policy from the market world perspective, remuneration did not suffice as the amounts were considered ‘underpayment’.

It is striking that communitarian arguments were initially largely absent in our respondents’ reasoning. They mostly took perspectives in line with republican thinking that led them to perceive workfare volunteering as a form of misrecognition. Three lines of reasoning came down to the republican yardstick for justice of not being able to opt out due to high exit costs. Judging from these three ‘worlds of justification’ – the inspired world, the domestic world and the world of fame – interviewees felt that having to comply with the policy eventually misrecognized their true selves, their care for others and their fear of humiliation.

Only a handful of interviewees used liberal arguments to oppose workfare volunteering. Those who judged the policy from a market world perspective considered it to be a matter of redistribution. They felt that labour was being maldistributed as volunteer work was replacing paid work.

(p.248) After a while: fair to request, unfair to demand

Of the 40 respondents we interviewed a second time, the experience of doing volunteer work triggered a civic world perspective among 31 of them. Boltanski and Thévenot describe the civic world as an interpretative framework that ascribes more value to the community than to the individual; the collective interest transcends the interests of the individuals who comprise it. A community consists of peers who jointly and unselfishly strive for a collective purpose; the more general the purpose, the greater the value the civic world ascribes to it. Persons who contribute to efforts to achieve unity increase in value in the civic world, in which social equality is a core value (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006).

After volunteering for some time, many began seeing the policy of obligatory volunteering from this civic world perspective, concluding that workfare volunteering is quite fair after all. Some (still) opposed the obligation to volunteer, but the idea of doing volunteer work while on welfare was largely seen as good and fair. This is in line with a civic world perspective in which contributing to society is valued more than individual freedom (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006, p 187).

In the second round of interviews, many respondents told us that they felt workfare volunteerism had offered them the opportunity to do something meaningful. This was particularly the case for those who volunteered in advocacy, the educational and care sector. For instance, they contrasted their meaningful volunteering to the “shallow life” they had lived before. One interviewee told us: “I made a lot of money, but I always went to work with a grumpy face.” After he resigned, he began participating in a volunteer programme as a buddy for a former drug addict. He recollected: “If you had asked me at that time what I was proud of, I would have answered ‘my apartment, my job, how far I got in business’. But now, yes, I am proud of being a buddy. That’s what really makes me happy.” For this man, workfare volunteerism was fair; he thought volunteering would show others what it showed him: how to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. His example shows how civic world arguments begin to surmount arguments from the worlds of fame and the market, as he concludes that his current volunteer job (which may be lower in status and payment) is superior to his previous paid jobs.

Workfare volunteers without previous work experience likewise began applying a civic world perspective to judge the fairness of the policy. They perceived being part of something meaningful, or to mean something to others, as superior to paid work; they preferred (p.249) “meaning” to “materialism”, “contributing to an important cause” to “competing in a shallow rat race”. One interviewee (age 28) who had just begun volunteering at a horse riding school for mentally disabled children valued the purity of being in touch with nature, the horses and children. She talked about her activities as something that “really matters” and “something more real than a desk job”. For her, workfare volunteering was fair because it offers people the possibility to make a meaningful contribution instead of having a meaningless paid job.

The shift towards a civic world perspective had varying implications for how workfare volunteers judged the obligation to volunteer. While some tended to oppose the obligatory dimension and others agreed with it, both groups based their arguments on the civic world belief that contributing to society is the ultimate goal in life. Those who opposed the obligatory element felt it deprived people of achieving this goal, while those who supported it felt it helped people contribute to society. The obligation to participate was hence both legitimized and delegitimized on the grounds of taking part in a collective effort for the benefit of society. In both lines of reasoning, the ‘other’ they had in mind when judging the policy was other social assistance recipients.

For the interviewees who opposed the obligation to volunteer, the policy revealed society’s suspicion of people on welfare: that they are reluctant to contribute anything to society. But having volunteered for some time, they came to assume that most social assistance recipients in fact want to contribute something. One female interviewee (age 46) argued: “Social assistance recipients are just like volunteers, they want to contribute to their community.” Many were convinced that asking social assistance recipients to do volunteer work would generate more willingness than requiring them to do it:

‘If the government said: “We are looking for people who would like to help to clear snow”, I would not be surprised if a lot of social assistance recipients showed up, probably more than when they are obliged to show up. I think it’s just a big difference if you impose something on someone or you leave them a choice.’ (Male, 44 years, unemployed for seven years)

After volunteering for a while, some interviewees even began to endorse mandatory volunteering: “People need a little bit of a push. Because welfare is a safety net, a last resort. You can’t claim a benefit just because you feel like it; it’s only for emergency situations, if you (p.250) have no other option” (male, 46 years, unemployed for more than ten years). Respondents taking this civic world perspective considered the obligation fair because other social assistance recipients who ‘lack a certain mentality’ could no longer shirk their responsibilities for contributing to the public interest:

‘For young people, I do think it [mandatory volunteering] is okay. 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 their individual circumstances.’ (Female, 62 years, unemployed for over ten years)

From a civic world perspective, the obligation to volunteer – which focuses on the unemployed as an asset for the collective – feels fair. Their evaluation of workfare volunteering supports their belief that everyone needs to contribute to society, with ‘others’ no longer allowed to evade their responsibilities.

In the second round of interviews, people no longer argued in terms of redistribution. Republican and liberal arguments – misrecognition of their true selves, their care tasks, their fear of humiliation, and the maldistribution of labour – were no longer the main issues. While strikingly absent at the outset, after some time spent volunteering, communitarian ideas began to dominate the judgements of interviewees. From a civic world perspective, they concluded that everyone needs to contribute to society as it offers people indispensable recognition. They framed this in terms of the redistribution of responsibilities as they did not want to do less volunteer work themselves. Obliging all to contribute to the collective interest was experienced as recognition of their own contributions, but also triggered images of the not-yet-contributing ‘other’.

In the end: ‘highly unfair’

The second round of interviews was followed by a third round, between six months and two years later. From these interviews, it became clear that volunteering for extended periods of time had changed how the remaining 19 respondents judged workfare volunteering. The market world perspective had now eclipsed the civic world perspective and they were (again) experiencing workfare volunteerism as unfair. The satisfaction of making a contribution to society had waned. It (p.251) now bothered them that they were still only receiving a pittance for their work, either a small remuneration or a welfare benefit. Having committed themselves for so long, they felt let down. As mentioned in the methods section, most of the other 21 participants declined to sit down for a third interview since it was too confrontational. The main reason for this was that they had not yet found paid employment. This indicates that if they had been interviewed a third time they probably would express quite similar sentiments as the remaining 19 participants.

Unfair distribution of payment

Central to this shift was the changing ‘relevant other’ in their argumentation. Earlier on in their volunteering trajectories, many had compared themselves to people living off welfare without contributing to society – a comparison that put their own contributions in a positive light. After months (and in some cases years) of volunteering, across the board respondents began comparing themselves to their paid colleagues. They saw themselves as being just as productive as their paid co-workers. One interviewee wondered: “If they get paid, do I not deserve to get paid as well?” They had contributed more than enough. They should, by now, be earning more than a welfare benefit and a pat on the back. The absence of wages had begun to feel as if their time was not valued.

It also bothered them that their volunteer job had still not led to paid employment. Having settled into their volunteer work, they wondered whether they were still heading towards paid employment. For instance, one male interviewee (age 50) had been volunteering as a janitor at a primary school. But he waited in vain to receive a permanent contract. The fact that he was not earning anything – that the school was paying nothing – had got under his skin. Feeling undervalued, he began to believe that the school was taking advantage of him. This made him indifferent towards his responsibilities; he began going out at night and arriving at school late the following day. After this happened a few times, the school sent him away.

As frustrations about not getting paid or finding paid employment grew, expectations of their welfare officers changed as well. Although they had once asked themselves, “I’m being helped, why shouldn’t I help someone else?”, they now asked: “I’m helping others, but who is helping me?” Most had received training to perform tasks in their voluntary positions, but not for finding paid work. Supervisors at their voluntary jobs hardly seemed motivated to help them find paid work. According to several interviewees, it was in the interests of (p.252) their supervisors to keep their volunteers and to see their performance improve over time. Ironically, just when workfare volunteers were most prepared to take on paid jobs, they were most valued as volunteers.

At these moments, almost all interviewees (18 out of 19) pinned their hopes on their welfare officers. But only two had recently been in touch with their welfare official to discuss how they were doing. At the time of the third interview, no one had found paid work and most had received little support to do so. They felt at the mercy of the whims of their welfare officer: abandoned, kept in suspense and left in limbo.

Welfare officials often showed scant interest in how workfare volunteers could find paid work and seemed satisfied when there were no complaints from the organization where they were volunteering. One male interviewee (age 48), for example, was disappointed about the frequency of contact with his welfare officer and felt abandoned: “I have seen her exactly one time! And I almost had to force myself on her to get attention, like: hello, don’t you think it’s time to discuss my situation?! But she probably thought: ‘he’s busy volunteering, so he’s doing fine’.”

Other interviewees also wanted their welfare officials to check on them, to see whether they were still moving towards paid employment, and to support them in this direction. Although one female interviewee (age 43) enjoyed volunteering at an elderly day-care centre, after some time she thought that she had ‘done her part’ and expected help with finding a paid job. But she had not heard from her welfare officer for months and felt there was no one else to turn to. She seemed to be left in limbo, without direction: “What am I supposed to focus on? That is something I’ve learned over the years, I have to focus on something or else I will never find a job. … I expect help with this, but I don’t get any.”

Another female interviewee (age 38) had worked as a volunteer in a nursing home. She felt “ready for the next step” but did not seem to be getting any closer to the labour market. She had not heard from her welfare official for some time, so depended on her supervisors at the nursing home. She felt she was being kept in suspense by her supervisors, who told her: “You’re not there yet, you have not learned enough yet”. She sighed: “But I cannot keep hearing that”. Sensing a lack of commitment to her ambitions, she needed confirmation that paid employment was on the horizon, but never got any.

Although interviewees felt they deserved more attention from their welfare officers to find paid work, this never materialized; in fact attention from welfare officials diminished over time. While they (p.253) previously argued from a civic world perspective that they were more deserving than other social assistance recipients, now the market world perspective started dominating their thinking. They felt that volunteering had diminished rather than improved their chances of finding paid work.

A small handful of positive experiences suggest what the exercise of non-arbitrary power would look like. Several interviewees had hoped to join the voluntary organization as paid employees. Although none actually found employment through this route, two spoke highly of their welfare officer’s commitment. A female interviewee (age 45) who was volunteering at an organization providing education to relatives of cancer patients told us:

‘I had a good relationship with my case manager. I requested an extension of my volunteer work, because they told me there would be a permanent job. And then my case manager offered me the option to quit my volunteer job within a few months in case they would not deliver.’

Although surprised by her welfare officer’s remarks, she later understood that he was worried that she would end up empty-handed. In hindsight, she believed that her welfare officer had her best interests in mind.

According to the republican view, freedom from domination entails the absence of arbitrary power (Pettit, 1997). For Pettit, arbitrary power manifests itself as a lack of control experienced by those subjected to it. The experiences of workfare volunteers after several months of volunteering reveal that arbitrary power manifests itself as neglect by welfare officers and the lack of control experienced by volunteers. Workfare volunteers who perform well are abandoned, kept in suspense, and left in limbo, stuck in volunteer jobs that offer no further prospects. Getting stuck is also the result of high exit costs, since quitting means risking a sanction (also see Chapter 4 by Dermine).

High exit costs became especially palpable in cases of conflict at work. Conflicts arose when a person’s civic world perspective was challenged by requests that did not fit this perspective. A recurrent theme in the third round of interviews was the moment volunteers were requested to take on tasks (notably cleaning toilets) that did not fit their idea of meaningful work. At such moments, they reasoned that without being paid, this was not something they should be assigned to do. For one female interviewee (age 28), this led to conflict at her volunteer organization. She argued: if my work is unpaid, it should at least be meaningful; that compensates for the lack of pay. But her managers (p.254) and fellow volunteers were not aware of her sensibilities. When she turned to her welfare officer for help, she expected him to take her side and protect her from what she saw as exploitation. Instead he told her: “suck it up and get back to your volunteer job, because you don’t want to risk getting a sanction”. It was a painful experience; after volunteering for some time, she felt she deserved respect. Other workfare volunteers in similar situations felt the same way.


This chapter sought to further our empirical understanding of perceptions of social justice in welfare to work policies in general and in workfare volunteering in particular. Building on Fraser’s (2000) work on recognition and redistribution as well as Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) ‘worlds of justification’ framework, the chapter revealed how social assistance recipients’ perceptions of workfare volunteering change over the course of their involvement as volunteers.

While many social assistance recipients initially judged the obligation to do volunteer work as unfair, the meaning many found in their voluntary positions reversed their initial judgements. But over time – especially as the lack of sustained guidance left them as far away from the paid labour market as ever – they came to see obligatory volunteering as deeply unfair. Welfare officers seemingly uninterested in their employment trajectories meant that workfare volunteers experienced lack of control over a situation with high exit costs. Generally speaking, workfare volunteers are at great risk of being subjected to arbitrary power in the republican sense of the term. Especially the lack of support from welfare officials made them feel abandoned, kept in suspense and left in limbo. This lack of attention combined with the high exit costs of receiving a financial sanction should they quit made them feel at the mercy of the whims of the welfare officer. From their experiences it seemed that for welfare officials workfare volunteering had become a way of parking clients with poor labour market prospects.

The findings of this chapter also speak to the philosophical debate on redistribution and recognition. Boltanski and Thévenot’s ‘worlds of justification’ framework not only sheds light on why social assistance recipients judge workfare volunteering to be fair or unfair; it also shows that the dynamics of ‘othering’ are closely related to whether workfare volunteering is seen as a matter of redistribution or recognition. At the very outset, the diverse ‘others’ social assistance recipients had in mind encouraged them to judge workfare volunteering as unfair. But if they found meaning and recognition through volunteering, their frame of (p.255) reference changed and other social assistance recipients became their significant others. After volunteering for extended periods, their frame of reference changed again: recognition for contributing to society no longer sufficed as a baseline for fairness as their paid co-workers became living proof of an unfair distribution of paid labour.

Is workfare volunteering in accordance with the legal prohibition of compulsory labour and the right to freely chosen work? It can be argued that workfare volunteering does not comply with all legal safeguards identified by Dermine in Chapter 4. First, workfare volunteers’ capabilities for voice and their exit options were restricted by the lack of attention paid to their situation by welfare officials. Second, the excessive duration of welfare to work programmes conflicts with the right to freely chosen labour; the open-endedness of workfare volunteering, which is due to the fact that the law does not require welfare officials to set an end date, limits the exit options of social assistance recipients. Third, their exit options are even further limited since they have to participate in volunteer work that does not help their transition into paid employment. Finally, their chances to find steady employment are also negatively impacted since paid jobs are replaced by volunteer work.

Considering the judgements of workfare volunteers in light of the republican theory of non-domination, is workfare volunteerism a just policy? The answer is no, because in the long run, it subjects social assistance recipients to the arbitrary power of welfare officials for extended periods of time. Both the open-ended nature of workfare volunteerism and the exercise of arbitrary power leave workfare volunteers in limbo.


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(1) For the liberal-communitarian discussion, see Chapter 1.