The ethics of working for free

I do a lot of voluntary work. It can feel like having the abundance to give freely of your time is always going to be the ethical choice, but it isn’t. Here are some things to consider if you’re working for free.

Is this a commercial activity? Should it be the sort of thing that can pay you? If you are able to work unpaid, are you denying someone else the opportunity to earn a living, and are you supporting an enterprise that would just rather not pay people? If it’s commercial but can’t pay, are you propping up something unviable and is that really the best use of your time?

Exposure is not payment, usually. If the company could afford to pay you, they should not be treating you like they are doing you a favour by offering unpaid work. If the company cannot afford to pay you, there is no gain for you in working free for them, it will not turn into a paying gig. It is a different consideration if you are looking at a charity, a social enterprise, or a community project which may not be economically orientated and may well be worth contributing to for the value of its goals.

Are you supporting a culture of unpaid work? Many people end up working unpaid when they don’t want to, and most should not. If you are on salary, your hours may be vague but the pay should be fair. If it is in your contract that you may have to do unpaid overtime in emergencies, that’s what you’ve got, but your overall pay should make that ok. If a company is constantly demanding little extras unpaid, that’s not ok or healthy. The major thing to watch for is this – does unpaid work take anyone below minimum wage payments? If so, the company is breaking the law. If you can comfortably afford not to be paid to work, you might be able to afford to stand up against this sort of thing. People on minimum wage may be too fearful and vulnerable to resist this kind of exploitation.

Fear of losing your job is the thin end of the wedge that has people working unpaid in insecure job situations. For the freelancer, the zero hours contract holder, the casual labourer, job insecurity can mean feeling obliged to say yes to working for free sometimes. The thick end of this wedge, is modern slavery, where people are working unpaid for fear of punishment. Tolerating a culture of unpaid work makes it easier for the extreme end to carry on. If unpaid work is normal it becomes harder to see full blown slavery. And of course there are degrees of exploitation in between that are even harder to identify.

If you can afford to work for free, take the time to ask why you are being asked to work for free. That is a gift of your time that you can give to people who are more vulnerable than you and who may be unable to speak up against exploitation.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “The ethics of working for free

  • emberbear

    Hi Nimue, spot on. I have happily given my time to support primary school children, listening to them read, accompanying them on trips and running a chess club, precisely, as you say, because I could afford to. However, it is clear that many people are being exploited by their employers, sometimes because they dare not speak up, and sometimes because of ridiculous, outworn systems that are in place, such as the system for barrister pupillage. It might seem crazy to care about that when so many people are being taken advantage of more typical low paid jobs, but when the salary is £12,000 a year and someone is supposed to live in London on that, it means that it becomes virtually impossible for someone whose parents won’t support them to become a barrister. I have no skin in the game. It’s just a good example of how ridiculous, and sometimes quite literally medieval systems, still dominate key areas of social, political and economic life. We have all seen the vital importance of the law over the last couple of years. Personally, I am a big fan of using legal and legitimate means to effect change. Ergo, we need to enable young people who are passionate about key issues to enter the law and politics and paying them a reasonable salary is an important part of that.

    • Nimue Brown

      I knew nothing about this – many thanks for flagging it up. Law and politics careers should not be only for the well off – and that being the case would explain rather a lot.

      • emberbear

        Oh, absolutely. There are all sorts of bars and barriers. I am sure that there are many super intelligent and talented young people out there who are deterred from entering these areas by all sorts of factors, both visible and invisible. I listen to Radio 4 a lot so I know there are organisations out there that try to mitigate these difficulties for women and for ethnic minorities, but I am not sure what support there is for those who simply cannot afford to enter these professions.

      • Nimue Brown

        The failure to recognise that educating people benefits everyone underpins this and many other problems around higher education, I think.

  • locksley2010

    “We can’t pay you, but we can give you exposure…..” words that actors hate.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Tell them back, “That if exposure was all you wanted, you would just take off your clothes.” Even for that, you should be paid. [Grin]

  • locksley2010

    Christopher Blackwell, I like your thinking!

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