Volunteer campaigns in Saudi Arabia hide the reality of unemployment

Volunteer work campaigns have recently spread inside Saudi Arabia. Volunteering is one of the most prominent deeds advocated by governmental and non-governmental, profit and non-profit organisations, with unusually large media support. The government itself is leading this trend, to the extent that the Ministry of Social Affairs announced the launch of the “Volunteer Work Platform” in 2020, which it says will “contribute to organising and enabling volunteer work by linking the bodies that provide volunteer opportunities with those who wish to volunteer”. It should be noted that the volunteer work platform is fully linked to the National Information Centre. The volunteer hours, the number of times you volunteer, and the entities in which they have volunteered are all shown on the Absher platform. Therefore, in this report, we ask about the reality of this new trend, and what is new in these campaigns? What are the real goals that the government seeks to achieve by harnessing all means of media to promote it? How can these campaigns affect the labour market and unemployment rates in the country? Have many of these campaigns turned into exploitation tools for men and women who are looking for job opportunities? How can we read volunteering campaigns in the local human rights context? This report aims to understand the current situation of the concept of volunteering in Saudi Arabia, and how it is being exploited in favour of tyranny and playing with the capabilities of the nation.

Volunteer work is not alien to our society; rather our society was and still is passionate about giving, whether it is money or effort. After decades of fighting charitable work at home and abroad, it seems that the Saudi government has found a use for volunteer work. The Covid crisis came in 2020 to facilitate the matter and allow the State to take advantage of the pandemic to exploit the community’s desire to volunteer thereby significantly reducing the provision of job opportunities, or opening the door for profitable companies to exploit the need of the unemployed who are looking for any job opportunity, however small. By exploiting the pandemic to launch the volunteering campaign, the aim is to cover the government’s failure in its attempts to reduce the high unemployment rates in the country, as volunteers are deluded that their volunteering is counted as a credit when applying for any job, which does not usually happen. When academic certifications, practical experience and training courses do not satisfy, volunteer hours will not be sufficient in light of the scarcity of jobs and the failure of the economy. 

The exploitation of male and female volunteers is evident through their use in labour intensive work or for the benefit of for-profit organisations, or for parties that are not related to volunteering. When young men and women are invited to attractive sectors like entertainment to work as volunteers, yet the billions earned from these events go to a handful of artists from around the globe, then doubts arise about the true purpose of these campaigns. The head of the entertainment authority, Al Sheikh, was proud in 2019 that he achieved 22,000 volunteers in the Riyadh season that year! You can imagine how many millions he would have earned if he had not taken advantage of this huge number of young men and women in the country. 

Many tweets were sent complaining about the exploitation they were exposed to under the name of volunteering, and they launched the hashtag #No_to_exploitative_volunteering, criticising the ugly exploitation of those wishing to volunteer. One of them said: “Working free of charge for any profit-making entity is not volunteering. You are basically taking a vacancy that job seekers need. This is a real exploitation in exchange for a “certificate of thanks” worth 3 riyals.” Another says: “The level of volunteer exploitation by companies is terrible. Slavery of the 21st century is volunteering. The Riyadh Municipality has a budget from the government for maintenance… it is not a non-profit sector!! Exploiting people in such a bad way is truly shameful for us.” There are hundreds of other tweets describing the painful reality of this trend.

No one denies that voluntary work is one of the positive features in societies, but at the same time it requires from its practitioners a culture and awareness to protect them and protect their rights from exploitation. The exploitation of the pandemic also appears in the manipulation of the unemployment rate figures in the country. While the country’s economy is suffering from high unemployment rates among young men and women, the government claims that it was able to reduce the unemployment rate in its latest report. This cannot be trusted, especially since the voices of the unemployed are getting significantly louder in recent times. Some observers claim that the government’s manipulation of unemployment figures was caused by a more dangerous reason than unemployment itself – the departure of young men from the labour market and their lack of confidence in it, unlike young women, which threatens the country’s economy in the long term. Some analysts also attribute the government’s claim that volunteers are a labour force and as such are calculated in the equation for unemployment rates. We can safely say that any volunteer opportunity taken up by a young man or woman, are at the same time a missed job opportunity for another young man or woman. To make the picture clearer, consider the work done by an employee with a salary (let it be 7,000 riyals per month). In the current situation, this job will be distributed to seven volunteers in exchange for a handful of money that is not enough to fuel their vehicles.

The new Saudi volunteering system is the latest chain in a long line of human rights violations in the country, which suffers from several economic and human rights problems. Every young man and woman has the right to worry about the reality of this trend, and asking if it is the best approach in the face of unemployment? And how can human rights be protected in light of dreadful financial exploitation by companies that are already at risk of bankruptcy, and even worse government exploitation by manipulating those with dreams of job opportunities by “volunteering” them into profitable or recreational work where they are supposed to be employed for a fee. Finally, how can the performance of a government that depends on volunteers be trusted to perform its duties and obligations? How are they allowed to call for volunteers when the government announced through a number of ministries such as health and education that there is major skills shortage? We are not calling for stopping or rejecting volunteering, for no one will succeed in removing the spirit of dedication and serving others from the people of the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries, for they were and still are pioneers of charitable work. What we are calling for is the cessation of volunteering as a substitute for people’s right to get honest work with salaries that match the billions generated in our oil rich country. We call on all sons and daughters of the country to beware of “volunteer bandits”. 

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