Stop Working For Free, set up by Barney Hoskyns (prolific music journo and co-founder of Rock’s Backpages) recently released a manifesto, calling for us all to refuse unpaid work. I spoke to him about the manifesto, and got your opinions via Twitter.
The Manifesto (republished from Stop Working For Free)
STOP WORKING FOR FREE.
Calling all freelance content providers (musicians, writers, actors, photographers, designers etc):
Join us in WITHDRAWING UNPAID LABOUR from the creative and media industries. The exploitation of freelance content providers has gone on too long, and we are all responsible for letting it happen.
Please do not:
• Write, act, photograph or design for free
• Provide images, music or performances for free
• Do radio or television interviews for free
If a company or corporation asks you to provide your time and skills for nothing, TURN IT DOWN. You have nothing to lose by saying NO.
If you have any concern at all for your economic future as a content provider – and for the future of subsequent generations of such providers – please don’t ignore this issue.
PASS THE WORD ON to any content providers you know.
Further thoughts for those with a slightly longer attention span…
TO THE EXPLOITED:
• If you allow yourself to be seduced by the myth that your unpaid labour will “look good on your c.v.” (or equivalent blah), try to see that you jeopardise not only the welfare of your replaceable elders but your OWN long-term economic future.
• You set up a paradigm whereby you in turn become replaceable. The rolling exploitation of unpaid workers and perpetual interns is based on a false notion of deferred reward.
• If we do not start demanding recompense, ultimately humans will have no value. As Jaron Lanier states in his essential new book WHO OWNS THE FUTURE?, “Capitalism only works if there are enough successful people to be the customers.”
• How is it that our online habits have huge big-data value to tax-avoidant entities like Google, Facebook and Amazon yet NO VALUE WHATSOEVER when we request payment for our contributions to the networked information economy?
• We must return to the core humanist principle of valuing not just institutions and material things but actual living humans.
• If the present economic paradigm prevails, it will vindicate Margaret Thatcher’s contention that there is no such thing as society. Wouldn’t it be nice to prove her wrong?
TO THE EXPLOITERS:
• If you are making money from the labour of others, then you should share that wealth with them.
• If you knowingly exploit somebody while telling yourself, “Why would I pay someone if s/he’s willing to work for nothing?”, how do you sleep at night?
• If you habitually hire interns, at what point does their work experience end? At what point does somebody actually become WORTH PAYING?
• The culture of internship and work experience sustains class inequality, because only privileged kids can work for free. Only THEY receive the economic subsidy the government withholds from those born poor and with little hope of educational betterment.
• This is not only a moral but a MARKET imperative. In the long term markets will collapse if there aren’t enough people sharing in the wealth.
THANKS FOR LISTENING.
I freelanced for 18 months before getting a job at GoThinkBig and most of it was unpaid. The perfect example; calling up the editor of a big publication after I’d worked two days a week attending screenings and writing film reviews for four months, and telling her I couldn’t afford the travel costs anymore. She responded “Oh sorry to hear that!” and within a week there were three people in my place; more manpower at no extra cost.
It was hard and I waitressed some serious hours for rent purposes, but the unpaid articles led to paid freelancing. Editors saw my (unpaid) web pieces and asked me to write words for actual sterling pound coins. That’s why, when I spoke to Barney earlier today, I felt the Stop Working For Free idea to be good natured, if hugely idealistic.
But then, what’s wrong with being idealistic? Cynicism never changed anything. And just because slogging your guts out for free is a way “in” to some industries, that doesn’t make it OK.
“I sympathise with having to work with the existing status quo and this is not an attempt to change everything overnight,” says Barney, “but it’s trying to change the mindset whereby it has become totally acceptable not to pay people for work.”
Big businesses with wads of money have figured out that, by constructing a sort of Mass Intern Conveyor Belt, they can get work done cheaply as opposed to spending money on salaries. If we have crowds of young people entering into the world of work more than willing to offer their services for free, this just worsens the situation. “If the lie everyone’s told is that you need to work for free for an indefinite period of time, then we’re screwed,” he says, “we’ll be left with incredible qualified adults with no money and a seven-page CV.”
Think it’s naive? “My little idea was to put this out there. I’m sure it’s not going to achieve anything, but it might get people questioning their own decisions,” he says, “And from both sides – the employers, too.” You can’t argue with that.
Barney’s company, Rock’s Backpages, hired a girl after she came to them for work experience, and they saw she had interned previously at seven different companies. “We sat down and said ‘you know what? She’s done enough work experience. Let’s pay her’. We’re a small company and not awash with cash, but if you’re going to use someone and they’re going to be useful to you, then you need to pay them money.”
Yes, experience is useful and often necessary to prove to an employer that you’re someone who’ll benefit a company. But there are many companies and business (like us!) who pioneer paid internships, entry level jobs and quality work experience that covers expenses. Constant interning, and eternal work experience that feels pointless devalues you. It ruins your confidence and crushes self esteem. “If your labour is helping to make money for someone, then you should share in that wealth,” Barney says.
And not to mention close the gap between the wealthy people who are able to afford to intern, and the less well-off who are expected to intern while holding down a bar job/other part time slavery position. If you’ve ever had to do this, you’ll realise it isn’t as easy at it seems.
“We have to change this now before people start paying for work,” Barney says, “I can see it now, in the future, middle class parents going ‘oh I need to give my little darling a bit of help so I’ll pay for him to work for a good company’. It’s unthinkable, but we need to think the unthinkable if we want change.”
It’s a complex issue, and not one that can be solved overnight. Realistically, if you’re a freelancer, you need to limit the amount of unpaid work you’re willing to do and weigh it against the chances of real employment/future paid work. I wrote for a website for a while, for free, because I thought it would get my writing seen by the right people. Before long, it worked. Then the budget increased and I was being paid for the articles.
It’s, right now, down to a judgement call, because it’s down to the employers as much as the the freelancers/jobhunters. As our blogger Becky Mount said on Twitter: “it can be great for experience and starting out, but when will it end? Companies take advantage too often”.
But if people like Barney continue to contribute to the conversation, and even more join in the debate, maybe we can take it right to the top (are you listening David Cameron? ARE YOU?) and bring about a real transformation. Just because it’s the way things are, doesn’t make it right.
I opened the debate out to Twitter earlier today to see what you guys thought…