Over the last few months, I've seen more and more creatives and freelancers posting about the rising tide of clients who expect them to work for next to nothing, or, more often, for free. It's the same regardless of the medium: writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, graphic designers, Web builders, editors, body artists, dancers, tattooists, programmers... pretty much everyone.
Freelance writing jobs that used to pay $500 a few years ago now pay maybe $25 if I'm lucky. And what's worse, people think they're doing me a favor by offering me the job. "It's an opportunity to build your resume," they tell me. I've been writing for 25 years, I've got several books to my credit, hundreds of magazine articles, thousands of Web articles, and countless corporate documents. I think I'm past the "trying to get some experience" stage. I don't need to prove myself. I'm not a college kid, living at home, trying to earn some beer and gas money. I need to pay my bills and feed my family.
What's really worrying about this trend is that it's not confined to creatives. More and more businesses are relying on interns or unpaid workers. I've been invited to apply for unpaid jobs in retail, telesales, and even project management positions. I'm hearing the same from mechanics, builders, plumbers, and other tradesmen. People dangle the promise of paid work "later", "after training", or "when things pick up," but in practice that means after a few months, they dump you and replace you with the next sucker. There is no paying work. Never was. Never will be.
One business owner I briefly considered working with bragged to me about how he didn't pay any of his staff, and didn't intend to, as he could just use an endless pool of hopeful college kids. It wasn't that he couldn't afford to - the business was making a very healthy profit - he just didn't see any reason to pay people if he could get them for free. It rapidly became clear that he regarded me the same way: he'd get a few months' work from me and then get rid of me.
We're doing it to ourselves
Who's to blame? It's easy to blame it on the economy, or on unscrupulous bosses, but the unpalatable truth is that as long as we are willing participants in the unpaid labor scam, it's our own fault.
It's easy to feel forced into it by the threat that if you don't take the gig, someone else will. If you turn it down, you might be missing a golden opportunity. The client will tell you that you're competing with college kids who'll do the job for a couple of beers, so they have no reason to pay you more. They can go to ODesk and get people who'll work for a dollar an hour, so they tell you $10/day is "the going rate". Since you're a freelancer, you can't even get minimum wage. And so you swallow your pride, leave the financial issues for another day, and work for nothing. If it's costing you money to get to work, you're actually losing money.
But where does that leave you at the end of the month? You work every hour there is, you end up with a pittance, and you still can't pay your bills. You're stressed out, dispirited, and broke, and meanwhile your client is laughing at you for being such a jackass. He's got what he wanted, and you've got nothing.
Why this is not just bad, but really bad
This business model has two really dangerous effects.
First, it totally devalues what people do. Clients and employers are already starting to see no value in quality or experience. If they can persuade experienced people to give them quality work for nothing, then that just reinforces that view. I'm not a novice. I'm damn good at what I do, and I don't expect or deserve to be treated or paid as a novice. Why spend money getting a college education or developing skills if you're just going to end up in debt? Why bother trying to do your best work if it's not going to be appreciated? It's not like it's going to matter if you screw up and get fired.
And secondly, it screws up the entire economy. If there's an unending pool of unpaid workers, then who's going to be spending the money? To get out of recession, people need real jobs, not fake ones. They need to be able to make ends meet, pay off their debts, and start spending money. Unpaid workers can't pay rent, can't buy food, can't even put gas in the car or take a bus to work. Businesses can't survive when nobody has the money to buy from them.
It's a simple proposition. I work, and I get paid according to the value of my labor. That's not Marxism, that's market economics. If what I do is worth something to you, then you should pay what it's worth. A market distorted by free goods and services is fundamentally broken, as I've argued many times before. If you're working for free, you're basically screwing things up for everyone, not just yourself. The entire basis of "free" is "someone else pays for what I use", and that's not sustainable. Free or underpaid labor relies on someone else feeding, clothing, and housing your workforce. If you're not paying a living wage, you're basically stealing from them or from the taxpayers. In which case - well, FDR said it best.
Look at the book market. Authors had a hard enough time already, but now they have to compete with a glut of literally millions of people falling over themselves to give away their work or selling it for 99c in the hope of making it big. That's great for Amazon, who are making millions of dollars from all these unpaid writers. It's not so great for the writers, who can on average expect to make just $30 from a novel that took them a year to create. Readers don't want to pay $5 for a book when the market's flooded with free books, and established, quality authors are finding it harder and harder to make a living.
Enough is enough
Over the last year or so, I've done a lot of unpaid or stupidly cheap work. Despite the promises, none of it ever turned into paying work, and I've reached a point where I've decided that enough is enough.
I'm not working for free any more.
END OF STORY.
I don't object to quid pro quo. We're all broke, and I have no objection to doing something for someone in return for them doing something for me. I don't even mind helping out on occasion, especially if it's a project that I personally like and would actually enjoy, but as long as it's understood by all concerned that I'm volunteering or doing someone a favor. Let's not pretend it's work.
But if I'm not going to get paid a decent rate, or get something else back in return, I'll spend the time doing something I want to do. Maybe I'll read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, or practice my violin. But I'm no longer going to donate my time and my skills to enriching someone else for no benefit.
Epilogue (the bit that comes after the end of the story)
Actually, I can envisage myself working for free. I'll work for free when I can live rent-free, when I can get free food, free electricity, free medical care, run my car for free, get free clothes, go on free holidays, and so on. Or when I'm so rich that I don't have to worry about affording the things I want and don't need an income any more.
I wonder which of those will happen first: the socialist utopia, or the capitalist success?
No, I didn't think so.