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Making sure freelancers get paid

20th February 2019

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In support of the #NoFreeWork campaign, financial journalist Josephine Moulds writes about the issue of freelancers working for free and what can be done to change the culture.


Anna Codrea-Rado makes her living writing for some of the most prestigious publications in the world, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

When she was starting out, however, she wrote several articles for free. On one occasion, she asked the publication she was writing for to pay her. She says: “It took quite a lot of courage to ask for the money, but they said ‘no’.” Instead, they offered to work with her to finesse the piece, and said she would enjoy the exposure of being published by a major media outlet.

She now says: “I wish my landlord took ‘exposure’ as rent payments, but he does not; nor does the credit card company.”

Anna is not alone. Unpaid work has long been an issue for freelancers, particularly in the creative industries where there is intense competition for work.

Some 54% of freelancers have worked for free in the hope of gaining exposure, and freelancers lose an average of £5,300 a year through unpaid work, according to research from the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE) and the Freelancer Club. Given that there are an estimated two million freelancers at work in the UK, this is not a trivial issue.

Ingrained exploitation

Jordan Marshall of IPSE says it has become the norm for people to do unpaid work in order to break into certain industries, such as fashion and photography. That, he says, leads to further exploitation down the line. It also has the effect of undercutting the pay of those who do paid work for the same organisation.

“Because there is such a culture of expecting freelancers to work for free for a certain period, the value that they offer is not properly recognised by clients and so they end up poorly paid, or struggling with poor working conditions.”

What’s more, he says those industries end up worse off because they miss out on hiring whole swathes of people.

“A large number of individuals can’t afford to work for free and therefore you are excluding a lot of people from poorer backgrounds,” he adds.

#NoFreeWork

This practice has become widespread because there are so many people willing to work for free. When they tire of the situation, many are too afraid to speak up for fear of souring relations with clients.

Anna says: “When you’re just one individual trying to come up against some huge publication, you’re too scared that you won’t get repeat work.” That is why she wrote an open letter to editors asking them to improve their payment practices, which has so far been signed by more than 900 freelance journalists.

There is a growing movement against the culture of unpaid work. The Freelancer Club is running a #NoFreeWork campaign asking freelancers to pledge that they will not undertake work without payment; and asking companies to commit to paying freelancers for their work.

Anna says it should not be up to freelancers to fix this problem. “I feel a bit uncomfortable telling young graduates, ‘Don’t ever write for free’, when I am now in a much more privileged place in my career and I myself did it. I don’t think the onus should be on that young graduate to stand up to these companies. It just shouldn’t be legal for a publication to commission someone and not pay them.”

It’s not just a question of getting paid or not. Another big issue many freelancers will struggle with starting out is ‘what’s your rate?’ Aim too high and you might price yourself out of the job and let someone cheaper slip through; aim too low and you’re underselling your skills and doing your peers in the same sector a disservice.

A woman sits at her computer, surrounded by lovely plants

A cultural shift

There are, of course, circumstances where there is nothing wrong with working for free. Plenty of people choose to volunteer for worthy causes and do not expect to get paid. Jordan says it is these nuances that make it hard for the government to legislate against unpaid work.

Instead, he says, we should look at the way that businesses have changed their approach to internships. “There has been a cultural shift over the last couple of years, whereby companies no longer feel it is acceptable to take on interns and not pay them; not because there has been some swingeing government legislation but because there has been a lot of focus on the issue and a consensus has formed in society and business that perhaps this isn’t the right way of doing things.”

The government’s Small Business Commissioner could help shine a light on this practice. Jordan says: “His role is to look at payment practice and flag up areas of improvement. We believe he could bring this to the public’s attention.”

There are also examples of legislation that appears to be working for freelancers. In 2017, New York City brought in the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which gives freelancers the right to a written contract, timely and full payment, and protection from retaliation.

Jordan says: “Perhaps there are things the government can learn, in terms of removing some of the onus on freelancers to be chasing payments, because often they are in a weak bargaining position; they are less willing to put their neck on the line and potentially annoy a client.”

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