Further comments now added to the discussion

Yesterday evening, a Sunday, in one of the quiet hours in between World Cup matches, a friend responded to something on Twitter about self-employed people getting pressurised into doing free work with this thought of their own:

Oxfam do the same. Ask young artists to work on festivals for the experience whilst raising money for them who are, of course, paid.

Which got me thinking about a new blog post, and I said so:

‘Seriously contemplating a blog post called ‘People with jobs’. Especially where they work for reasonable organisations they increasingly expect lots of us lot to work for little or nothing & then get paid late if at all because they’re ‘a good thing’. There’s the blog post!’

Another friend responded immediately, triggering off the following conversation between several of us which carried on disgruntingly through the rest of the evening.

(In what follows my friends are in italics and I’m in inverted commas. I’ve removed their names, by the way, to protect them all from any vindictive job-holders out there. As if?)

That is a blog post! A worrying trend from the Charity Sector is guilting small not-for-profit organisations to work for them for free, from helping them promote their big fundraisers to delivering projects. Just. Pay. People. For. Their. Labour.

‘You’re right. On the other hand maybe a thread of tweets like so far, ready for when charities & other right-ons get to their desks in the morning might work just as well?’

I can’t tell you how often someone on a salary asks my micro sme to work for nowt. Happy to try and help but they only get the length of a dog walk!

‘Shows, if it needed showing, that you have skills, knowledge, a network and opinions that they don’t. Worth paying for then.’

I’ll often choose to do some pro bono work for local good causes that are just starting out. But just because we’re self employed or small biz owners doesn’t mean to say well salaried people in other more affluent organisation should expect us to work for free/next to nothing.

‘Exactly. I’m usually doing free work like that for some start up or community. Where I choose to offer it. When I’m asked into a place where everyone else round the table is being paid than I get paid too. Otherwise I walk away.’

Probably half of what I do is voluntary but that’s my choice and as you say it’s stuff and people at the start of something or stuff I passionately believe in. And there is too much of that because ‘I’m a believer’

‘Me too, but a starving believer is no use to anyone. So I’ve balanced my stuff these past 23 years by working free where it needs doing and there’s no money – yet. And getting decently paid where everyone else is getting paid. It works if I keep it balanced!’

Agree – me too. It took a while but I got there.

‘And then of course it’s a constant balancing act as the ‘free work/good for your exposure/ we’ve nothing for that in the budget/we were hoping you’d help us out’ queue builds up again…’

Yes to all your points ! My goodwill and charitable contributions do not mean I work for free where you can and should pay.

There we are then. Hardly enough data for conclusive proof that thousands of self-employed people are being ruthlessly exploited by people with jobs in the kind of organisations that should know better. But for a quiet time on a Sunday evening it showed me that a reassuring number of people I already know feel the same way I do. Which is comforting in itself.

Seriously though, I do think too many of you job-holders are exploiting our good will. But the next time one of you emails with some work you won’t pay for, well at least I can sent you this blog post as a reply!

…Then these additions from Twitter once it was published, as hundreds of people read and retweeted it over the next few days.

When people around the table have a proper salary, a nice pension, and paid holidays it’s hard to relate to those who don’t. Project creep can also be tricky. The extra meetings and bits and pieces which are overlooked and hard to get paid for….

All true and well observed. Everyone’s time is valuable and that needs recognising.

Interesting Ronnie. You know that I’ll ALWAYS advocate for people being paid, but recently I’ve been thinking that there seem to be many things that live in a space between ‘worth it if we can get it for free’ and ‘worth paying for’.

Some of those spaces maybe being where jobs used to be?

For example when people ask musicians to play for nothing at charity events, I suspect what the thinking is ‘some live music might be nice’ – as opposed to ‘it would be amazing if we could get [BAND or ARTIST] to come and perform.

Yes I get that. But people’s ‘might be nice’ is still the band’s ‘loads of work. Imagine going to the till in John Lewis and saying ‘I’d only quite like this so you should give it to me for nothing!’ Hmm

Absolutely. But in my analogy it’s more like going to John Lewis and asking for them to give you ANY jumper for free rather than one you’ve chosen. And not really caring if they don’t.

My point is that if you’re asked to do something for nothing, it’s might be the case that they don’t necessarily want YOU – just somebody in your general field.

In other words, they’re after any live music rather than a specific performance. This turns something that should be art into a commodity – and anybody trading commodities nearly always ends up in a price-race to the bottom.

Yes I see that. And yet all of us self employed do have to trade. All great artists and musicians are as much traders as I am. So we collectively owe it to each other not to undercut our own market rates . Even if we have to write pointed blog posts to defend our value.

That HUGE challenge for freelancers and the self-employed is to try and maintain a perception of value in their work – and that’s sometimes easier said than done – particularly when you’re starting out.

For that reason, I think it’s a good idea to ask for a fee EVERY TIME. You can choose to donate it back later on, but that way you make it clear your work is something that has value and should be paid for. It’s all about perception.

I agree with that where there’s any money at all. But some of the work I was writing about is with community & campaign groups that are outside the money economy. They’re where I’ll choose to help for free. My choice and not about market value.

The time and effort you give to worthwhile projects is incredibly important and invaluable btw – the world would undoubtedly be a better place with more people like you Ronnie. I just want more freelancers to think about their perceived value and avoid becoming a commodity.

That’s it then. The last word to a good friend there who’s a trade union organiser. Which makes me think…?

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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  1. All too right. And some charities thinking of themselves as “special cases” goes back a long way. I remember sending a charity £10 as payment for a mail order purchase – not a donation – way, way back in the 1980s, and when they didn’t supply what I’d ordered, I complained and got an indignant reply “But we’re a CHARITY!”, as if that absolved them from the law on advertising goods for sale. I had to threaten them with very bad publicity before they grudgingly relented and sent me my money back.

    There’s a new variant on this in my profession, IT software testing. Software testing is becoming a Thing, and there are various conferences getting set up with invites going out to speakers to come and give presentations. The testing community is getting exercised by what they call “pay to speak” – the conference organisers offer no expenses or fees, but expect speakers to come “for the exposure” (now, where have we heard this before?).

    But there’s another side to this coin. Big consultancies can and do send people out to speak at conferences, funded by the company. They do this as a loss-leader so that their names are in the frames when contracts are being handed out. Why do you think the same big four accountancy consultancies keep getting hired when they don’t seem to be very good at their job? This very reason.

    Meanwhile, a lot of innovative work in testing – especially testers taking the role of the custoner or end user and bringing their real-world experience to test software under development so you don’t get unexpected “the computer says no” moments – come from SMEs (like I do) or are self-employed contractors. Not only can they not get heard at pay-to-speak conferences, but their voices don’t get heard, full stop. And increasingly, this community of testers comes from a range of different backgrounds and bring that diversity to a business whose end products are, after all, used by different people all over the world – and so the diverse voice and experience is valuable for the range of perspectsives they bring to the art. So at least there’s growing push-back against working for nothing in this one particular area, and long may that continue.

    1. Good to hear of the push-back Robert. This blog post too has been a well read push back. Just no pushing back from the People With Jobs it’s all about. Rumbled or just plain ignorant?

      1. I suspect the second. Sadly, your blog is unlikely to be seen by the people who need to see it – which is why you need to keep on keeping on.

        Recently, I heard of a testing conference being organised by the Home Office which was going to be “pay-to-speak”, as I described above. I’ve written to my MP – a Tory back-bencher with almost zero profile – to raise the matter with the Home Secretary; after all, he’s supposedly from a working-class background and supposedly also should understand the needs of the SME sector. So let’s see what happens. Mind you, it’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote and there’s been no response, so I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Yes, I think that people who have spent their working lives in salaried jobs rarely understand what it’s like to be in a position where you are paid for delivering specific services. They tend to act as if you’re paid and the invoice is for something else. It’s ignorance, or lack of thinking, rather than deliberate exploitation.

  3. Yeah this really gets me; as an archaeologist in a saturated job market you’re expected to do shittons of free work even after finishing uni for well paid types who tell you it’s “good work experience” excpet you’re in your mid-20s and have a degree and several years paid work experience already

      1. lol sorry “shit tons” would be the more eloquent phrase that i was searching for.
        Shittons (n): Exploited young folk forced to say yes to any work proposition paid or unpaid by salaried people because someone’s already told them this is how to get ahead in life.

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