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.