Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Crossing the line between experience and exploitation – when is it OK not to pay?

Published 13 May 2013 11:40, Updated 14 May 2013 09:30

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Ben is a cameraman/director with one documentary under his belt, some solid tertiary qualifications and a range of music and promotional videos for satisfied clients on his curriculum vitae.

And, still, he gets calls from advertising agencies asking him to work for free. And bring his own equipment.

Carol is a well-known public speaker and author who has donated her time on many occasions for good causes – but it rankles when for-profit conference companies ask her to travel across the country to speak to their audience for free.

On the most recent occasion, she was told the event might be good for her “profile”. Before the words had even left her mouth, the woman from the conference company had realised that Carol had plenty of “profile”, which is why the company wanted her to speak.

“At least, she had the good grace to apologise,” says Carol.

The company came back with a revised offer: they would pay the airfare and hotel accommodation for the trip plus $300 for two one-hour keynote presentations over two days. There would be no reimbursement for ground transport, which meant taxi drivers would be getting her $300 fee.

Even a shelf full of awards doesn’t save you from being invited to work for free. Nate Thayer has won The World Press Award, the British Press Awards Scoop of the Year, and the Francis Frost Wood Award for Courage in Journalism, but Atlantic Magazine still asked him to donate his labour. Read his email exchange with the global editor here.

Value lies beyond the price

It seems that, increasingly, people want to get something for nothing. In some cases, it is a good deal: the business gets work for free and the donor gets the exposure or experience they need.

But sometimes, it is just insulting and it devalues the work.

It is not surprising that work is being devalued when anyone can look at the ridiculous asking prices for jobs on crowdsourcing websites such as Freelancer.com and Odesk.com.

Obviously, some of the rock-bottom fees are just ambit claims by people who don’t care about the “pay peanuts, get monkeys” analogy. On Odesk, one person is offering to pay $2.50 for 500-word articles, while another who wants to sell condominiums in Singapore wants a press release for $20.

There are probably some people in the world with access to a computer who are so poor and desperate that they will give that work their best shot – and they deserve more too.

So, when is it OK to ask someone to work for free?

  • 1. When you are a not-for-profit organisation, retaining as much money as possible to feed the starving and heal the sick.
  • 2. When the people you ask are straight out of training and you are offering a learning experience.
  • 3. When it is a sideline they use to promote their business.

It is not OK when you are being paid and you are asking them to perform work which is what they do professionally. People have to eat.

It is also not OK to expect inexperienced people to work for long periods of time without payment. If you do that, you are only providing “experience” for the offspring of people wealthy enough to support them through their internship – and discriminating against those who have to stand on their own two feet.

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