Is It Time To Revive The Subbotnik?

 In General

…continuing the theme of the work/life balance (, it has almost become axiomatic for many workers that zero hours contracts are, if not executed in name, are expected in spirit to some extent. Work/home boundaries blur in a physical sense and time follows suit. Gordon Gekko philosophy lives: lunch is for wimps. Workers feel insecure as jobs become scarce and redundancies escalate; union protection is minimal. On a day when we have been told by the Bank of England that disposable income is at its lowest since the 1920s, many people need to work longer hours to makes ends meet and accept poor terms in an extremely competitive job market.

The amount of work that is not remunerated no doubt makes a significant contribution to the economy of the country and to private profits, if not to the pocket of those executing it. Many people are not averse to volunteering, but they are likely to want to choose a favoured charity or their local community on which to bestow additional time and effort rather than the office where they spent most of their week anyway. The on-demand availability of a workforce can lead to a reactive culture where less and less is planned and organised and uncertainty reigns. Volunteering has also been used as a way of de-skilling some professions. Cheapness becomes more important than quality or consistency and generations of knowledge are eroded.

The free-for-all of such working practices stands in contrast with one of the first organised attempts to harness volunteer labour when subbotniks and voskresniks were instituted by the Bolshevik government in 1919 following the third Russian Revolution (the name deriving from the Russian words for Saturday and Sunday). They involved citizens undertaking community duties such as litter clearing and took place against Russia’s desperate struggle for survival in a civil war, following the ravages of the First World War. In later years, they became compulsory but were initially undertaken with genuine enthusiasm by a people trying to build a very new type of society.

Here, governments cannot quite decide whether voluntary work is a punishment, social obligation or a way to keep pesky pensioners off the streets during the day. It was announced in April 2009 ( that Gordon Brown wanted to see every teenager in the country complete up to fifty hours of volunteer work by the age of 19. Something to do while they struggle to compete in a shrinking job market I suppose. Four pilot projects were established that were posed to become compulsory before Labour lost the election. David Cameron launched his “big society” drive in Liverpool ( to make people feel so “free” and “powerful” that they no longer need public services or at least run their own voluntary schemes for “luxuries” such as libraries, post offices, transport and housing.

Perhaps we should make the workplace somewhere that is well-structured and organised enough to enable people to reclaim the concept of voluntary as something that is willingly given.

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