Saturday, November 19, 2005

40 Hours of Forced Labour

Over at Running for Alberta, I could not help but notice a proposal to force students in Alberta to perform 40 hours of community involvement (or whatever polite euphemism is being used in place of the proper term for coerced, unpaid labour is being bandied about this time - "community involvement" was the Harris government's).

This is one of those issues that it is difficult to take a stance against, because it is bound up with so many emotional reactions - most immediately, the appeal to emotion (a logical fallacy) that anyone who opposes it must be hedonistic and uncaring (a rational absurdity). To oppose the "community service" (a bit closer to what it is - community service being a punishment and not a privilege), in the eyes of some, is to oppose patriotism, volunteering, helping the deeply misfortunate, and all sorts of other ideas that ordinary Canadians cherish.

Completely aware that I may be mocked and derided for holding this view, I nevertheless must stand against this idea as a matter of principle.

At its core, the idea is fundamentally anti-freedom, undemocratic and tyrannical. I know it may seem as if I am overreacting, but from a basic human rights point of view, it is difficult to see how it amounts to anything else besides slave labour - that is, coerced, unpaid labour. I have nothing against volunteering - one might say I encourage it - but coerced volunteering isn't really volunteering at all, is it? Using the power of the state to force people to do work that they do not necessarily want to do, and mandating that they are not allowed to profit from this work, is merely a few degrees in severity away from what we would condemn as Soviet.

The absurdity and logical contradiction of forcing people to volunteer aside, it simply does not encourage anything positive. It does not encourage further volunteer work, rather it ingrains in students a sense that volunteering is something that must be done in order to attain some concrete goal - in this case, a high school diploma - instead of a volitional act of self-betterment and compassion. It is viewed cynically by many students - certainly by myself - and is not seen as anything more than a hurdle. Volunteering should be more than a hurdle, and it should be, if I may repeat myself, voluntary.

Finally, what is considered proper community involvement is often quite bizarre. For example, any involvement done during school hours is not counted - no matter how much of a boy-scout it makes one seem. For instance, my school had a voluntary program known as "Students Helping Seniors". Students would miss a day of school - assuming responsibility for the missed work of course - and spend the day helping seniors do various tasks they could not otherwise do on their own. This very worthy task nevertheless would not be counted. Also not counted is any activity which could in any way profit the individual - instilling yet another irrational value, that self-benefit is evil and must be discouraged. And no one is allowed to perform any task which would otherwise be a paid position, even if they do not turn a profit themself. That being said, volunteering in an election campaign? Completely fine. In fact, I earned the total - and more - of my hours working on the campaign in the 2003 Ontario provincial election to unseat our local PC MPP - a very nasty fellow, frankly - with a Liberal challenger. How that is somehow more valuable than helping senior citizens is still a mystery to me.

Of course, I would have campaigned anyway, and that's exactly my point: anyone who is inclined to do any form of volunteer work does not need the government to force them to do it, and anyone who is not inclined to do any form of volunteer work should not have the government force them to do it. Instead of instilling the value that volunteering is good - as if school should be about instilling values in the first place - this policy treats volunteering as a burden, and anyone who does not want to volunteer anyway is going to do their mandatory 40 hours and never do it again, annoyed at having to do it in the first place, and unlikely to volunteer in the future. And so far as values go, how's this for a value: It's okay for the majority to force the minority to work without pay. That's not a value I support.


At 11/19/2005 4:07 p.m., Anonymous Alberta Views said...

I don't see why you would disagree with the idea. Most provinces have such a requirement for high-school students, including Ontario. Alberta is simply one of the few that does not have it yet.


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