How does the USU exploit its volunteers?

Despite its promises to connect students, the USU V-Team program is borderline exploitative that ultimately delivers far less value to students than it does for the Union.

Every February, there’s a ritual that’s hard to replicate: Eastern Avenue and the Quad are lined with hundreds of students donning either a brick red or sun yellow t-shirt. These t-shirts represent the volunteers who make Welcome Fest possible: red for Sydney University and yellow for the University of Sydney Union (USU). Back in 2020, during my first year, I volunteered in the USU’s V-Team program, manning its iconic bright yellow food truck. 

Over the course of three hours, I stood at the front of Fisher Library with another international student. We were tasked with directing students to the truck and show students the menu. In return, we were rewarded with an (admittedly cute) yellow t-shirt and a lunch, courtesy of the food truck team. 

As much as I enjoyed the time, there was a great deal of buyer’s remorse; a sense that I wasn’t paid enough. That the experience was underwhelming. That the three-hour sojourn was a clog in the USU’s own gig economy. 

Mirroring USyd’s chronic reliance on unpaid student volunteers (think Student Representatives and Mentors), the USU similarly relies on the hundreds of volunteers it hires to run Welcome Week. Swathes of volunteer day trip leaders frantically race around the city for around eight hours while Welcome Week Party volunteers scrutinise ticket holders before headliners hit the stage. 

The similarity between them? No cash offered, just a lunch or a free ticket to the party and vague hopes for a spark of friendship. 

The issue in the USU’s reliance on unpaid volunteering is that it perpetuates a gig economy whose modus operandi is extremely low-cost labour. That is, in order to access opportunities involving greater responsibilities, we must submit ourselves to unpaid work. Persist in these roles, get a CV to evidence your grind, polish up some charisma and you’re in the vaunted inner circle of those employed by the USU. 

If you want to get paid by the USU, you have to go through the baptism-of-fire that is the USU Board elections, become a PULP editor – requiring political acumen, writing and editing experience) – or become Debates Director, a role that requires immense oratory, administrative and organising skills. 

The result is a quasi-exploitative and predatory architecture where, other than not being paid the actual worth of one’s labour, unpaid work is seen as natural. 

This mantra is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that one mentor of mine, when I asked if SULS execs are paid, they grinned and told me: “No, but they’re paid in clout.” 

Beyond this, what should spark concern is the program’s false promise of friendship and community connection. Back in late 2020, as a newly minted first-year student, volunteering in the V-Team offered the elusive prospect of connecting with other students. Instead of this, only radio silence ensued beyond my rostered hours. Our WhatsApp group(s) quickly moved on because, unlike the sustained work of clubs and societies, the USU V-Team opportunities are one-off gigs. 

Yet surely the prospect of making friends motivates a majority of student volunteers to collectively contribute an obscene number of hours to the USU’s coffers. Over time, it becomes apparent that, as the institution wields a monopoly over USyd’s student life, the USU’s free volunteering network becomes a borderline exploitative endeavour. 

Borderline exploitative because, in the end, the USU is an institution that can afford to invest more in the students who make it possible and chooses not to. Exploitative because the arrangement takes advantage of students’ goodwill and optimism to bolster its bottom line. Community service and genuine volunteering should be oriented towards a not-for-profit institutional end rather than inadvertently cushioning revenues. 

And so, it comes back to the question of what constitutes the common good for the Union. Persist as is, and the answer seems to be that V-Teams deliver services at profoundly low cost for the USU’s finances at the cost of a fragmented student culture. Alternatively, it can deliver change by building community, genuine financial security for its members and reversing the insecure gig economy that we are in.