We’re the third sector. Oh, you’re not familiar with us. That’s a shame. You see, we do a lot of work that would have previously been done by the state and, even further back than that, might have been done by the family unit. Care provision, support work, that sort of thing. We also try to regenerate your communities, run food banks, provide capacity building and numerous other tasks, but are somewhat hamstrung by ceaseless budget cuts from local authorities, who seem to expect that the same work can be done for a decreased budget year after year after year until the entire operation becomes totally untenable. This either leads to the entire enterprise folding or to a discharge of services to others who can supposedly do the job more cost-effectively (usually by cutting the already meagre benefits to staff).
Employment in this sector is typically low paid, insecure, and temporary. Because of the nature of the ‘hand-to-mouth’ funding, you might not be able to get a mortgage or make plans that involve anything over 12 months away, but never mind. Not an awful lot of room for vertical or horizontal advancement either. Most social enterprises are (very) small to medium enterprises.
Welcome to the acceptable, friendly, yet slightly hypocritical face of capitalism in the 21st century. Welcome to the third sector.
The third sector is an amorphous term to begin with, and is used interchangeably with social enterprise as well. Yet it is something that has gained prominence, although perhaps not recognition, in recent years. Originally viewed as a fusion of the public and private sector into a ‘third’ sector, it includes elements of charitable enterprise, business, private endeavour, naked capitalism, and local government. Essentially, they have ‘social’ aims rather than solely being responsible to shareholders and investors. Often they are hard to separate from charitable organisations, adding further to the confusion over what they actually are and what they actually do.
A better idea of the range of social enterprises and the breadth of work that the term ‘social enterprise’ covers can be gleaned from the shortlist of the Social Enterprise Awards in 2018: Caledonia Cremation (not-for-profit funeral directors), Hey Girls (period poverty), Smile Together (oral health training for children), Toast Ale (beer brewed with leftover bread) and Ealing Community Transport (self-explanatory).
Politically prominent and unionised government employers tend to steal the majority of media time and column inches. Indeed, it was ever thus and ever will be. It is also politically expedient for all sitting governments to lavish attention on them. In a similar manner to the financial institutions that were ‘too big to fail’ in 2008/9, the NHS and local authorities are just ‘too big to ignore’ for any government. Third sector organisations tend to be slightly more low profile and frequently fly under the radar.
Unfortunately, the third sector does not get this same level of attention from the government, the populace, or the media. This is despite the fact that some of the care roles are similar to those provided by the NHS or local authority staff, except without the benefits and comparable rates of pay. For example, would you pick up someone’s excrement for £7.85 an hour? If you were in someone’s house supporting them with a task, would you like to get caught up in a drugs raid by Police Scotland for less than the minimum wage? What about if you refused to help someone to move a wardrobe, as it quite rightly wasn’t your job? What if that person then reported you to social work saying that you hit them, and before you know it you have been removed from employment as part of a preliminary investigation – only for that person to finally retract the statement; they were just annoyed at you for not helping them with a task that you weren’t there to help them with in the first place. What if, upon walking into someone’s house, there was a pool of dried vomit on the floor and they looked right at you and said, “Are you going to clean that up?” This is fairly regular life for employees in the care industry of the third sector, just trying to do their poorly paid jobs without much fanfare.
You might ponder where such organisations are based. Well, it’s simple. Nowadays they are to be found vacating the skeletal remains of local government, who since the great recession, have been keen to slough off their holdings onto any organisation that is looking for office space, or more likely, to a private organisation with a portfolio of property, hoping to make more money without investing in the maintenance of the property that they own. They can also be found in dire, early ’60s, block-shaped offices on the periphery of a high-street in a slightly rundown part of town, where rent is cheaper.
The interior space of the office will not be an improvement to the exterior. Dated décor, threadbare carpets, cracked toilet seats, ancient heating systems, windows that have been painted shut, crumbling walls. The sort of places where wallpaper is used as a load-bearing structure.
Those luminaries of the third sector can dress it up any way they want. The same unrelenting capitalist logic still rules the roost. All these businesses are striving for the same slice of pie, be they care clients, people with addiction issues, or community groups looking for secretarial services. And just like capitalism, scarcity and market forces determine the majority of the outcomes. It’s the same ‘race to the bottom’ for the employees at the coal face of actual service provision. The staff will be jettisoned if there is a cash flow problem in exactly the same fashion as if they were working for a heartless mega-international conglomerate. The difference being that the heartless mega-international conglomerate wouldn’t spend time discussing its ‘social aims and objectives’, while discussing redundancy packages and savings to be made through ‘natural wastage’.
If you are conspiratorially minded, they can provide a ‘smokescreen’ for cuts in essential services. If an organisation closes, it might make for an article in the local press, but most probably the budget cuts that caused it would not. This allows local authorities to take a ‘hands-off’ approach to service provision. Again, the situation mirrors what large multinational corporations like Apple and Nike do. They don’t actually manufacture their products – they are all outsourced to a third party in a ‘special export zone’, leaving worker rights and welfare to the actual manufactures, thus providing a comfortable degree of plausible deniability when something goes wrong.
This should by no means denigrate the essential tasks undertaken by social enterprises. If you’ve ever known someone who was driven to a hospital for cancer treatment, they may have used a social enterprise. If you’ve had a carer visit your grandparent to provide support and care, they may have been from a social enterprise. If you’ve ever tried to get any sort of emotional or mental health support and were ‘signposted’ to another organisation by your GP, you may have been sent to a social enterprise without knowing it.
I myself have worked in the third sector. The employees are some of the best and most wonderful people I have encountered, dedicated to their jobs. Frankly, it was a privilege to be in their company.
But they need funds and awareness, and a modicum of political clout to do what they do. They can’t continue to do their jobs to the same standard in the current economic climate, which is worrisome since we all are reliant on the third sector to an extent. And they certainly can’t persist in the same miasma of uncaring Laissez-faire budgets that treat staff that provide care and support as just another outcome on a spreadsheet.