It’s been well over four years since my first Workaway experience in Brussels, but it was the next one – my Workaway in France – that will forever live in my memory as an example of just how bad a volunteer job can get.
After I left, I wrote a basic story about my time in Touzac, France, but I never really got into the details about the Workaway. I didn’t want there to be any bad blood between the host and I. However, we all have a responsibility to accurately review hosts, services and products that we are familiar with. I’m not the only one to have written a negative review for Workaway in France host at the time, but unfortunately Workaway refuses to publish specifics for negative feedback – one of the biggest failures I see in their system. Well, here are the specifics.
Please forgive the lack of images in this article. I failed to take photos of any of the volunteer work or living conditions during my stay there. It was a few months into my travels before I got the hang of taking pictures.
A Workaway in France in the Middle of Nowhere
The first disadvantage of my Workaway in France was getting there. The village was called Touzac, located in the Midi-Pyrénées of western France. To get there from my Workaway in Brussels, I had a bus to Paris, another to Toulouse, a train to Cahors, and then a bus that dropped me off on the highway a couple miles from Touzac. All told, I spent nearly $60 on all the transportation to get there over 29 hours. The bus from Cahors to Touzac only ran once or twice a day, making the village extremely isolated.
Touzac had (and still has) only a single pub (run by the Workaway hosts) and a beauty salon. The closest corner market was a 4.5-mile hike along the highway, although that one was only open a couple hours a day on select days of the week with their schedule only posted on their window – not online. Otherwise, it was a 7.5-mile walk in the other direction to a decent supermarket.
Censoring the Feedback
After the bus dropped me off on the side of the highway, I waited a good half an hour before my host arrived. She pulled up in her Jeep and the first words out of her mouth were “Hello, I’m Simone. I’ll need to vet your feedback before you leave.” That was my first massive red flag. Granted, she’d only had a couple volunteers before me, but it really made me wonder what she was doing that would make her want to hide an accurate report of the Workaway when I left. It wasn’t long before I found out firsthand.
A Dishonest Profile
What caught my attention on their profile was the landscaping work they needed. They said they were laying a new path in their garden, trimming the bushes, etc. I’d had landscaping experience in the past and was excited to get back into it. The profile also mentioned accommodations in the big chateau on the property, home-cooked meals, etc. It only took a few minutes to ascertain that the profile had almost no validity.
Upon arrival, I was brought directly to the pub, given a paintbrush and told my first job would be painting. At that time, I had only been on the road for five weeks and I was very limited in the number of clothes I had. I reluctantly mentioned that I didn’t have any clothes for painting. The response I received was “Tough luck, that’s your job today.” As a comparison, the very next Workaway I had was near Cinque Terre in Italy. When I arrived there for a similar landscaping job, they also said my first task would be painting. Before I could even open my mouth to comment on my clothes, they quickly added that they had a jumper for me to use! But that’s part of the next story.
In the week and a half I stayed at my Workaway in France, it was only on my last two days when I finally received any landscaping tasks, and that was only after I specifically requested them. I’d had a rather uncomfortable confrontation with Simone in regards to my work in the pub. I’d mentioned that it had taken the entire day for my photos to upload, and she’d interpreted this to mean I’d spent the entire day on the computer trying to upload the photos, a fact contradicted by the other two volunteers who saw me working my allotted hours while my laptop sat in the corner desperately trying to connect to the pitiful WiFi connection.
Wretched Living Conditions
If the working conditions were bad, the living conditions were abysmal. Yes, all three volunteers received separate bedrooms in the big chateau on their property while Simone and her family stayed in the guesthouse out back. What wasn’t mentioned in the profile was that the main house had no heating, electricity, WiFi, etc. For two hours a day, Simone would turn on the water heater. This gave us enough warm water for about five minutes of usage. It was up to us to decide if we wanted to have a shower every three days, or just take a two-minute shower, with the third person guaranteed to end off freezing. Oh, and this was in February with sub-zero temperatures at night.
As to the food, we were given home-cooked food a couple times, but in the form of leftovers from their own table. More often than not, a couple ingredients were left out for us and we were expected to creatively combine them into some semblance of a meal. That worked for only a couple days, at which point another volunteer and I borrowed their two bicycles and rode the 7.5 miles to the Carrefour market. Unfortunately, the other volunteer had a defective bicycle and he was pitched to the concrete with some pretty bad injuries when the seat broke off beneath him on the ride back.
Drunk and Stoned Hosts
Perhaps what I took the most umbrage to at my Workaway in France was that Simone and her husband spent the entire time inebriated or stoned. Simone was a raging alcoholic and her husband was a pothead. Now, I’m not really against people who drink or smoke; it’s just a part of our culture I tolerate despite my total aversion to partaking myself. On the other hand, when the negative effects affect me directly, things get heated. It was a bit pitiful to watch Simone walk directly into the wall three times and fall down the stairs once, but I took offence when she got vicious toward me for not staying up with her and the others until 3 a.m. getting drunk and high. Unsurprising, there have been two other times when I had problems with my Workaway where I refused to get drunk with them. It’s no secret that I’m not a big drinker.
The worst experience during volunteering was on the last day. I was eating my last bowl of cereal from my trip to the supermarket when Simone’s daughter came into the main house with her boyfriend. She saw me eating and commented that she was hungry and there was no food at her house. I’d seen their kitchen and knew this to be false, but I kindly mentioned that perhaps her mom could pick her up some more food. She retorted that she didn’t want that food and stormed out. A couple minutes later, I received a call from an enraged Simone. She was furious that I hadn’t turned my cereal over to her daughter. Shocked, I pointed out that this was the last of my food I’d picked up on my own. Simone maintained that I should have given the cereal to her daughter anyway “since we were all a family there” and she would have reimbursed me. I had to refrain from pointing out how illogical that was.
How to Avoid Bad Workaway Hosts
I certainly don’t want to paint Workaway as a negative site. It’s true that some hosts exploit the free labor with a very imbalanced exchange for their guests, while other volunteers take advantage of their hosts in a deplorable way. In the two dozen or so Workaway experiences I’ve participated in over the years, a couple were more negative than positive, and this horrible Workaway in France was certainly an exception to the usual fun, esprit de corps and mutual cooperation I’ve experienced with most of my hosts.
It is an unavoidable fact that Workaway reviews can be dishonest, falsified, hidden, etc. This makes it hard to select a good host or volunteer. As I’m always inclined to trust everyone, I’m happy to stay with a host with few or no reviews. However, I wouldn’t recommend this to be on the safe side. The first thing I would say is to trust your instincts. If you see anything in the profile that makes you uncertain or wary, just move on to the next listing. If you want, you can always contact previous volunteers and see what they say about a host.
Don’t forget to do your research and read the fine print. If a host says you need to have your own vehicle, you’re probably going to be in a very isolated location without access to stores or other services. Make sure you clarify any living conditions if they’re not explicitly stated in the profile. Ask about meals, the condition of the room, etc. I’ve heard some horror stories by other volunteers about how they had to live in sordid hovels or go malnourished with no way to leave until the host would drive them back to civilization. Of course, my own Workaway in France was a good example of this, even though the rose-tinted profile made it hard to think anything should be questioned.
Finally, always have a backup plan. Don’t be afraid to leave if things go sour, you feel unsafe or insecure, or agreements aren’t kept. I’m a huge proponent of one’s own code of honor, and I believe you should never desert a group to which you owe your support. At the same time, you can’t let others put you down, threaten or harm you, or suppress your goals. If that group is detrimental to your survival, you don’t owe them anything. It’s not just your responsibility but your duty and honor to yourself to move on. The bottom line is to maintain your own integrity.
If you’ve had a good or bad Workaway experience, feel free to leave it in the comments below.
Switching to WorldPackers
Now that I’ve been harping on Workaway, I should probably point out that I’m actually not a fan of the platform. The Workaway reviews are too-easily misleading, volunteers and hosts both have problems with maintaining their end of the exchange, there’s absolutely no support system, etc. Recently, I’ve found the perfect alternative. Worldpackers is a volunteer platform that offers everything Workaway does, plus everything Workaway doesn’t. Worldpackers screens all their hosts and focuses on quality over quantity. They also offer a way better support system for the volunteers, even going so far as to offer a place to stay away from a host if things go bad, and then set-up at alternative volunteer location.
They focus a lot more on social impact and eco projects, which instantly grabbed my interest when I saw it. They already have hosts all over the world, and over 1.5 million volunteers (so you need to join quick and get ahead of the competition).
Click here to join Worldpackers and use SKYETRAVELS to get a $20 discount to your membership!
Despite this negative story, I still love volunteering. I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover Workaway, the pro’s and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.
- Is Workaway Worth It for a Budget Traveler?
- 5 Reasons Why Workaway Reviews Are Inaccurate and Could Be Improved
- My Workaway Experience in Brussels
- My Original Workaway Story for France
- My Adventure with Zanzibara Campground via Workaway
- My First 3 Weeks Back in Europe, Helping on a Farm in Sweden
- My Five Weeks in Sjuntorp Could Have Been Better