Democracy and the workplace: The case for unionization in NGOs


THE concept of democracy, fundamentally about inclusiveness, participation, and equal rights, finds its roots not only in government but also within the workplace. It is one that permeates all aspects of life. 

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This principle should extend particularly to workers in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), institutions often dedicated to advocacy, humanitarian work, and social change—often filling the inadequacies of the government. 

Despite their noble missions, NGOs are not exempted from the debates on fair compensation, job security, and equitable treatment, issues that can be effectively addressed through unionization. 

The principal argument of this article mainly stems from an analysis of the NGO as a capitalist creature which is averse to labour rights and related civic rights such as unionization, which on its own exposes what Professor Issah Shivji termed “silences in NGO discourse”. 

The silences that make the NGOs perpetuate the same injustices they seek to solve. In commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with workers(labour Day) I had to shed light on the labour contradictions in the NGO sector and why unionization is important.

The Nature of NGOs and their Work

NGOs operate in diverse fields including environmental conservation, human rights, and disaster relief, among others. Their workers are often driven by passion and commitment to their causes. 

However, this high motivation does not safeguard them against the vulnerabilities of employment such as precarious contracts, uneven pay scales, and sometimes, intensive work pressures without adequate support or recourse. 

These challenges create a paradox where workers are employed in pro-democratic or equitable organizations yet face undemocratic conditions in their employment terms.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often seen as creatures of capitalism due to their reliance on private funding and donations from corporations and individuals with vast financial resources. This dependence on capitalist structures can create conflicts of interest when it comes to advocating for the rights of workers. 

NGOs may therefore be hesitant to challenge the very system that sustains them, leading to compromises in their advocacy efforts to maintain crucial funding streams. 

This can impede the realization of workers' rights to civic liberties and fair working conditions as NGOs may prioritize maintaining their financial stability over pushing for systemic change that challenges exploitative labour practices.

Furthermore, the capitalist framework within which many NGOs operate can also perpetuate inequalities within their own organizations. 

Critical issues such as unequal pay, lack of job security, and limited opportunities for marginalized populations within these NGOs reflect wider societal inequalities that hinder the effectiveness of their work in advocating for fair working conditions. 

By being enmeshed in capitalist structures, NGOs may inadvertently replicate and reinforce the very systems of oppression they aim to combat, making it challenging to fully realize the goals of promoting workers' rights and civic liberties in a truly equitable manner.

The Democratic Ethos of Unions

At its core, a union is a democratic body that provides workers with the platform to participate in decisions that affect their professional lives directly. 

This aligns with the democratic ethos whereby everyone has a voice and the opportunity to influence outcomes collectively. 

For NGOs, whose foundational principles often include equality, justice, and empowerment, supporting unionization can align internal practices with external advocacy messages.

Advantages of Unionization in NGOs

1. Improved Worker Rights and Benefits:

Unionized workplaces can negotiate better wages, enhanced benefits, and stronger protections against unfair work practices. This is cardinal in ensuring that those who dedicate themselves to aiding others are also supported.

2. Sustainability of Workforce: 

NGOs benefit from reduced turnover rates when workers feel their rights are respected and their employment conditions are stable. Unions help in advocating for policies that address burnout and stress, common in high-pressure NGO work environments.

3. Enhanced Organizational Accountability:

A unionized workforce can serve as a check on the management, ensuring that the organization lives up to the ethical standards it promotes. This can improve the organization's credibility and efficacy both internally and externally.

4. Promotion of Equitable Work Practices:

By fostering a democratic dialogue between management and workers, unions encourage a fair distribution of power within the workplace. This can be particularly impactful in NGOs, pushing them to model the principles of equality and justice they advocate for.

While the benefits are clear, unionization in NGOs does face challenges. These include resistance from management who may fear loss of control or increased operational costs. 

Moreover, the global footprint of many NGOs introduces complexities in standardizing union practices across diverse legal and cultural landscapes. 


NGOs should therefore approach unionization thoughtfully, ensuring local adaptations respect both international principles and local norms.

Democracy should not be limited to the realms of public governance but should extend into the private spheres of work, particularly within NGOs. Unionization offers a pathway to align internal employment practices with the democratic and equitable values that these organizations champion. 

By supporting the unionization of their workers, NGOs not only enhance their operational effectiveness but also reinforce their credibility and reliability as truly democratic and empowering entities in the global landscape. 

The step towards unionization is not just beneficial but essential, solidifying the integrity and sustainability of NGOs globally.

*Liam Takura Kanhenga is a human rights defender and writes here in his personal capacity. 

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