The NGO workers trying to build a better world on the minimum wage

Organizations such as the Red Cross and Aldeas Infantiles are paying salaries in Spain of as little as €735 a month

Javier Martín-Arroyo
Red Cross staff tend to immigrants rescued from a dinghy in Motril.
Red Cross staff tend to immigrants rescued from a dinghy in Motril.Paquet (EFE)

“A colleague likes to say that we can always resort to the Red Cross to pay the electricity bill,” jokes a UGT labor union member and Red Cross employee about the paltry €764 gross monthly salary that is paid to some of its 11,808 members of staff. For the reality buried beneath the figures of Spain’s biggest NGO – which counts on an annual budget of €600 million, 1,300,000 members and 200,000 volunteers – is that while it is targeting people’s conscience for donations, the working conditions for many of its employees seem to deny them the very rights they are employed to safeguard for others.

I don’t agree that we ignore employment rights. In many cases, our salaries are better than others in the sector Red Cross HR director José Luis Pascual

NGOs provide work for around 645,000 people in Spain, and aim to create a fairer world. But during the crisis, Spain’s central and regional governments drastically reduced the budgets for the so-called “third sector,” which generates an annual €14 billion in revenue and represents 1.5% of Spain’s GDP. Consequently, some of the country’s 30,000 NGOs froze or lowered the salaries of their staff – a situation that has never been redressed. Now, NGO workers are speaking up, though most prefer to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Aside from its 3.2 million volunteers, the Red Cross is composed of an army of salaried professionals from lawyers to marketing directors and drivers to health workers. And their working day, whether full or part-time, helps to address injustices such as offering emergency care to the 22,419 immigrants coming off the boats in 2017.

But the precarious nature of their employment conditions has serious repercussions for a sector whose workers are 78% female, 71% university graduates and 40% under 35. While corporations seek maximum profit, even if they are providing a social service outsourced by the government, NGOs seek to achieve sustainability and balance their investments against their revenue, and don't have to worry about shareholders demanding profits. The changes of some NGOs over the last five years, however, have been surprising.

“There is a latent instability,” says one administrator who works for a number of NGOs. “It’s a sector that has been damaged and which requires a certain element of volunteering and a huge dose of personal motivation, which is exploited when it comes to unstable contracts and unpaid overtime. One major conflict is that many organizations fight for human rights, including employment rights, and there’s a perverse logic at work in which they compete to bring down costs to win contracts that the government has outsourced to the detriment of salaries.”

A Red Cross cleaner earns €765 gross for a 36 hour week while management can earn up to €44,568 a year

With 34% of contracts temporary, low salaries are common in NGOs despite the fact that there are five governmental labor agreements to guarantee a decent living wage. The labor reforms introduced by the government in 2012 have meant that a company agreement now prevails over the government agreement and the corporations have made the most of this to bring down salaries and maintain investment. The same goes for NGOs.

The Red Cross, for example, adheres to 60 different labor agreements, more than one for each region, meaning that staff carrying out the same jobs are on different salaries. In Teruel, a Red Cross cleaner earns €765 gross for a 36 hour week, a driver €796 and an auxiliary nurse €824 – this after a salary increase of 2.5% in January following a lengthy freeze on pay. The collective bargaining agreement for the 60 workers in this region ran out in 2008. In Alicante, there are telemarketing staff who take home €500 on part-time contracts.

José Luis Pascual, the director of Spain’s Red Cross Human Resources department, argues that their salaries are governed by market forces but that the different company agreements are an improvement on the government agreements. “We’re not inventing low salaries, it’s a fact. Should that be changed? Possibly,” he said. When asked if €800 was enough to live on, there was silence. He then admitted, “It would be very hard to cover everything […]. I don’t agree that we ignore employment rights. In many cases, our salaries are better than others in the sector.”

A street fundraiser tries to convince two women to sign up.
A street fundraiser tries to convince two women to sign up.P. P.

Decent working conditions do exist, above all at central headquarters where annual management salaries are in the region of €44,568.

Meanwhile, an assistant at Aldeas Infantiles earns around €735, in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement SMI – Minimum Interprofessional salary. “We only have five people in this category for a maximum of two years,” says Luis Alberto Ramasco, the NGO’s director of human resources. Aldeas Infantiles has an annual budget of €45 million and 1,100 people on the payroll.

The Third Sector Platform has criticized the lack of initiative from Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and regional governments, which, despite the economic recovery, have reduced spending on social issues by 23% since 2016 while seven million people in the country are living below the poverty line.

“We haven’t benefited from the economic recovery,” says the platform’s president, Luciano Poyato. “On top of which, private financing has dropped by 11% in the last year. The government saved the banks but not the people,” he adds, referring to the takeovers by the banks of the smaller savings entities (Cajas de Ahorros) resulting in the disappearance of numerous social initiatives. Concerning low salaries, he says: “I’m not denying there’s a contradiction. But we don’t consider ourselves to be generating poverty. The sector survives any way it can.”

As many as 54% of the 30,000 NGOs in the third sector have fewer than 10 employees and 30% have between 10 and 49, which, in itself, produces a certain lack of efficiency.

Many NGOs don’t behave like NGOs, they’re all about business UGT union member Pilar Mármol

The underlying question, however, is whether the government is acting in the correct manner by outsourcing so many services associated with fighting gender violence and marginalization. The government passed the Third Sector Law in 2015 and has a commission for civil dialogue that meets every quarter. However, two and a half years on, the law still lacks policy development and the Ministry of Health has refused to comment on this report.

In addition to the low salaries, there is a general lack of respect towards workers who tend to victims such as refugees or prostitutes, according to the administrator who talked of a latent instability in the sector. Staff shortages mean days off are worked, shifts are constantly being alternated between day and night and neither the dangers of dealing with youths in care nor the emotional toll on workers is being taken into consideration.

“I have a friend who has been obliged to run a workshop on gender violence on March 8 [the day of the feminist strike],” says social educator Sara Fernández, who works for €684 on a 20-hour contract with no overtime on Sundays. “I don’t feel like a slave,” she says, “but given the social intervention agreement, I feel badly paid.”

Meanwhile, another worker explains: “We are really passionate about what we do and the line between our work and our activism and wanting to change the world is indistinct. But as a matter of pride, I can’t allow my employment rights to be undermined.” This same worker, who prefers to remain anonymous, took her former employer to court for unfair dismissal and won. “Do you know how many members you need for €16,000 in compensation?” she asks. Ironically, this same NGO has taken her on as a self-employed worker.

The Loyalty Foundation audits the accounts of 181 Spanish NGOs, including the sector’s giants, in order to “cultivate confidence in the transparency and good practice of NGOs,” according to the website. There is no mention, however, of workers’ rights.

But the picture is not all dark. Greenpeace Spain, which has a staff of 79, offers better salaries and flexible hours. Moreover, there is not a huge gulf between the salaries of directors and the rest of the workforce. “The works committee has always been able to put their point of view forward and the management is good,” says Sara del Río. “It’s not a fairytale but there’s an effort to meet halfway. It’s a matter of communication, but not only between the works committee and management. It’s also between the workers’ representatives and the workers, so the workers understand that they have power.” On the other side of the negotiating table is Julián Carranza, director of human resources at Greenpeace who highlights the fact that the NGO facilitates dialogue and reconciliation measures, including access to extended maternity leave.

Similarly, Diana Ruano, who works for UNHCR, advocates better salaries from Denmark via Ted Talks and other alternative means.

Everything’s above board but immoral. People don’t want to believe it’s happening NGO employee

In 2015, 11 psychologists, educators and social workers dealing with victims of gender violence for the Trama Center Association pulled out of tense negotiations on whether to substitute the government agreement with the NGOs own employment agreement. “We proposed leaving together to provide an example since our work involves empowering women and getting them to fight for their rights. We won but it was really hard and there have been reprisals [on behalf of the NGO],” says a member of the team.

Seven of the 11 workers were unable to bear the pressure and left the organization due to what one termed as “employment abuse.” One of the four remaining has taken time off for anxiety and the NGO is yet to cover her post two months on.

Enrique Rivas, Trama’s president, who has 300 people working for his organization, puts the numerous lawsuits against the NGO down to “disagreements among the staff,” and denies that Trama has taken measures against workers who took a stand. “If we improve on the government agreement, we will incur a budget deficit,” he says in reference to low salaries.

Meanwhile, the unions are pessimistic about an improvement in working conditions. José Luis Rodríguez, from the CCOO union, says that the publicly financed NGO projects should guarantee decent salaries and working conditions. “A lot of people are earning under €1,000. The salary scales are very low despite the workload,” he says.

Pilar Mármol, from UGT, says: “Many NGOs don’t behave like NGOs; they’re all about business. And when there’s an [outsourced service] tender, they’re like vultures. They go as low as they can and we have to make sure they keep to the collective agreement.”

The new Public Sector Contract Law that recently came into force rewards the application of social and environmental criteria when deciding between two or more offers. It also promotes the application of the sector’s collective agreement over the company’s agreement and bans businesses with more than 250 workers from taking contracts unless they have an equality scheme. Its impact on reducing precarious conditions remains to be seen.

Borja Fernández, president of the OEIS (Association of Action and Social Intervention Organizations), which groups together 23 NGOs and 21,000 employees, says: “We have to consider the power of public grants to improve the compatibility between caring for victims and better working conditions for those who do. It’s not always possible, but we try. Are there abusive practices? Yes. Does the collective agreement help reduce them? Yes. It’s a compromise. I don’t think we cultivate instability.”

The precariousness prevalent in NGOs has traditionally been taboo among employees. “It’s very painful because we are working for human rights,” says one. “And the slogan is very powerful but it’s working against you. It’s schizophrenic. It’s difficult to rally because it’s hard to understand the logic used by the NGO’s human resources. You get frustrated because there is a unanimous silence and to disturb that is to stain a pure and transparent sector. Everything’s above board but immoral. People don’t want to believe it’s happening.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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