A Peace Corps Union?

I recently read this blog from Joel Thurtell, a Peace Corps Volunteer from back in the day when we were building schools and were not only allowed to drive motorcycles, but they were also provided for us. He writes how poorly Volunteers are treated, the lack of respect Washington shows us, and the need for Volunteers to organize into a union.

What we have with the Peace Corps is an institution with supposed liberal ideals that is modeled on the organization of a factory. We have the managers who make policies, and we have the grunts who carry out those policies. The bosses are paid well and get lots of perks. If they happen to staff overseas offices, they live in urban areas with modern houses, servants, and even chauffeur-driven cars. But they are removed from the often-isolated communities where volunteers live and work, and in my own experience, often are unwilling to spend time at volunteer sites, mainly for reasons of personal comfort. If they happen to work in Washington, D.C., they are so far removed from volunteer reality that their ability to understand volunteer needs is at a level that deserves little respect.

In many points, he’s very right. We’re equipped with a Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) that meets with our staff in Bangkok to bring up issues that we would like to have addressed. While beneficial for small things like clarifications of certain policies within Peace Corps Thailand, when it comes to something that Peace Corps Washington has decided, it seems like staff close up faster than an oyster shell.

Peace Corps Volunteers are awarded two days of vacation every month of service, not including our time in PST. We must use a vacation day if we leave our site for reasons outside of Peace Corps (medical is included) on a weekday that is not considered a national holiday in Thailand. If we want to celebrate an American holiday out of site, we are required to take a vacation day, unlike those in the Peace Corps Thailand office and the U.S. Embassy. We are also required to take a vacation day if we leave the country, on both weekends and Thai national holidays, as well as for weekdays. This includes going to America (where you’re participating in Third Goal activities, sharing your host country’s culture with other Americans). The main reasoning for this is that if Volunteers are traveling within their host country, they are still learning about it and participating in cultural exchange with country nationals.

Our VAC recently brought this issue to the attention to the Peace Corps staff in Thailand and this is the official response we received. ‘Guidelines for PCV leave are set by Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., and are applied consistency across all Peace Corps countries.  Thus, Peace Corps Thailand is not in a position to change or amend the vacation policy regarding international travel.’ The case is considered closed.

The part that makes me angry is that there is no discussion of our Peace Corps staff bringing this to the attention of headquarters. This is a long-standing concern amongst Volunteers in many countries and yet the staff does nothing about it. I think I would feel much better if I knew my country director was petitioning those that live in the comforts of the United States about the desires we have on the ground. How are we supposed to feel we have any power within the organization that we are dedicating 27 months of our lives to?

A vital point that Thurtell brings up is the aspect of motor vehicles. As a Volunteer, we are expected to live within the means of the budget Peace Corps allots us, usually being paid the same as those we work alongside. Even though I could be making three times what I currently am teaching English in Thailand and compared to what the main staff is paid in Bangkok, I have no problem with our salaries. What I do find difficult is that while I am expected to live like Thai person, certain Peace Corps rules prevent me from doing so, like being forbidden to ride on a motorcycle.

It’s a common Peace Corps Thailand joke that if we see four people on a motorcycle here, our thoughts drift more towards, ‘wow there’s room for more’ rather than the dangers associated with it. My eight, nine, and ten-year old students often come to school on motorcycles. I feel pretty badass on my royal blue bike, something few adults are ever caught riding. Maybe that’s why they treat me like I’m still a child?

Volunteers in Thailand are forbidden to even sit on the back of a motorcycle going down the street. It’s a justifiable cause to get a one-way ticket back to the U.S. The rationale stems from the high level of accidents from motorcycles and cars. I particularly liked this paragraph of Thurell’s, ‘The ban on motorized travel is the brainchild of some functionary working in an air-conditioned office in Washington, D.C., sipping his or her Starbucks and issuing edicts with profound implications for the grunts on the line.’

All issues of convenience aside, which there are a lot of, something important to point out is by forbidding us to drive, it takes the control out of the hands of the Volunteer. That is difficult to bear when you are in a situation that is uncomfortable. For example, the huge monk ordination parties Thailand has at night are filled with people drinking copious amounts of whiskey, you know, the ones that gave us a ride there. Every Volunteer is supposed to have a person they feel comfortable to call in case that happens. In theory, it’s a good idea.

Practicality though, is a cold-hearted bitch. I’m not supposed to ‘break-face’ of my elders and I can’t really imagine explaining to a Thai person, and a drunk one at that while the music blasts on and the stripper types are dancing away, that I thoroughly apologize for the inconvenience, but my designated driver has to come to pick me up in a car, equipped with seatbelts no less.

This would also be after hours of conversation I can’t understand and the time that I wanted to go home has long since passed. Even when I went to some of these parties with my host mother and father in Ayutthaya, my meh would allow my paw to drive us home despite him being passed drinks all night and her drinking nothing harder than a Pepsi. At least if I had a little motorbike to carry myself to these places, I could leave when I got tired of people forcibly grabbing my arm to parade me around to dance and would be in control of the vehicle taking me home.

Where Thurtell goes wrong though is in the logic of a union. To be successful, labor organizations need to create some form of communication amongst its members to pull off the ultimate form of power: a strike. Refusing to perform clogs up the works until the two sides can meet to form some kind of compromise. In my experience though, I cannot imagine ever going on strike in my community to improve my already fairly privileged existence. The idea of even explaining why I’m striking to my community members boggles my mind. I can see it now. ‘Uh yes, well you see, even though I’m from this country you consider heaven, now that I’ve come to work here, I want to improve the quality of my life now and when I finish with Peace Corps.’

Furthermore, how does Thurtell expect us to organize these things? Who would be in charge, current Volunteers from multiple countries? How would they meet to discuss Peace Corps demands from across the globe? Being from what is considered a ‘Posh Corps’ country, do I even have the same issues that those who serve in Africa and Eastern Europe have? I’ve never heard from Volunteers that serve in Cambodia, a bordering country, how am I going to effectively confer with those on the other side of the globe? With the differing levels of access to internet and other forms of communication, how could we even begin to discuss these things?

That being said though, just let me leave the country without using my minimal vacation over weekends and Thai holidays!

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