March 6, 2019

Freelancers strike back: Saying “no” to free work

Written by Ben Wilks

Dinghy Co-Founder

It’s a scenario that will be all-too-familiar to many freelancers. You’re having a promising email exchange back and forth with a new client. The job sounds like an interesting one, you already have tonnes of ideas about how to approach it and you feel like this client is a good fit. Then the discussion turns to rates. “Ah!” says the client. “You see, our budget for this project is quite small. But we can offer you a credit on the work, and we have thousands of customers all over the globe. It will be great exposure.”

There are now over 2 million freelancers in the UK workforce. According to IPSE, half of all freelancers have reported being asked to work for free, and 43% have completed jobs for no pay. Some industries are worse than others, with the practice of working “for exposure” being particularly prevalent in creative professions such as design, illustration, writing and photography. In fact, 80% of freelancers in the creative industries reported having worked for free in the last two years. It doesn’t matter how high-profile a freelancer is, or how many years experience they have under their belt – many still find themselves being asked to work for free.

Freelance Heroes

Ed Goodman founded Freelance Heroes nearly 3 years ago to help freelancers voice their concerns and issues in addition to helping each other. Freelance Heroes now has nearly 6,000 members and working for exposure is often discussed in the community. Ed told Dinghy “Freelance Heroes members often comment how they’re asked at some point to offer their services for free, in return for alleged “exposure” to their target audience. Many are also asked to lower their prices considerably for the same return, or for the loose promise of more work from the person asking. I say loose, because why would the “client” suddenly start agreeing to pay the freelancers’ full rate?”

He continues “Sourcing low paying clients to create a portfolio, in the attempt to create a financial safety net, won’t happen. Certainly not in the long run. Not only that but I’ve now seen freelancers who even start to resent that part of their work as well, as the clients pay little or nothing for it. I’ve yet to meet a freelancer who is happy to have a pool of clients commission projects that pay very little. Profit is only one part of running a business. Once you’ve had the goalposts moved and a client pays at a heavily reduced rate, or for free, there’s no future rate leverage opportunity with that client. Imagine charging £50 for a logo as a “one off”. Then, when they come back for another one, they’re charged £400. Or recommend the £50 to others? Why would anyone agree to an 800% increase? If their budget doesn’t match the work, walk away. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills.”

This isn’t acceptable. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that shockingly few landlords, utility providers and supermarkets are willing to accept “exposure” as payment. So freelancers are striking back.

Freelancer Club

One organisation, in particular, Freelancer Club, has started a #NoFreeWork campaign, asking freelancers to refuse to work for free. The campaign aims to eradicate exploitative unpaid work by educating freelancers and businesses on the impact it is having on the individuals and the industry. They aim to cultivate a change in the culture of unpaid work by demanding more legal protection for freelancers from the government.

Matt Dowling, founder of Freelancer Club told Dinghy “In regards to a change in legislation, we’re currently in talks with MPs, as well as the Small Business Commissioner, to discuss ways in which freelancers can get more legal protection. Equally important is the work we’re conducting with regards to the culture and mindset around unpaid work. All parties should be made aware of the grey areas around free work and the detrimental impact it is having on the freelance community in general. Freelancers add enormous value to the economy and it’s time we start protecting one of our key assets.” 

Freelancers and companies can both sign the petition to say No to free work here. You can keep up to date with the movement by following the #NoFreeWork hashtag being used to raise awareness across the web.

Yet another email from an organisation asking me to work for free because they haven’t budgeted for interpreters. #NoFreeWork— Frances Lewin (@FrancesLewin) February 6, 2019

Why working for free is a bad idea

Your work has value. You need money to live. Both of these reasons combined mean that working for free is never a good idea. The time and energy you put into “for exposure” gigs would be better spent investing in something that actually pays. And working for free, paradoxically, actually decreases your chances of getting paid work in the future. Free work leads clients to the assumption that they can have that work done for free again and again. Should you then refuse to do it for free next time, perhaps they’ll find somebody else that will. The labour and skill of whole industries of freelancers are being devalued on this basis. Working for free also reduces access to freelance work for those who can’t afford to work for free, leading to a lack of diversity.

How to respond if you get asked to work for free

This depends on how good a client you think you are liaising with (though perhaps be wary of any client asking for unpaid labour). Some freelancers report success with a cheeky “I’ve checked, and exposure isn’t legal tender, sorry!” While others initially attempt a diplomatic response that lays out clearly your rates and the reasons for those rates. If the client is rude or persistent in asking for free work, don’t be afraid to be firm in your responses. This is your livelihood, after all!

What protection is there against free work for freelancers?

At present, unfortunately very little. One of the criticisms of the current system is that it puts the onus on freelancers themselves to turn down unpaid work, which may be difficult to do. This can be particularly tough if you are young, just starting out as a freelancer or are struggling to get jobs.

Several freelance industry commentators are now calling for the UK government to introduce new legislation to protect the rights of freelancers. New York City, for example, has its own Freelance Isn’t Free Act. The Act gives freelancers the right to a written contract, timely and full payment for jobs, and protection from retaliation if they pursue the above rights. Rather than pressure young freelancers to not work for free, we should be pressuring clients to ensure all work is paid. Those advocating for the rights of freelancers have argued that it should be illegal for a client to commission a piece of work without paying for it.

Make sure you get paid for the work you do, your talent deserves it, you should also protect your work with freelancer insurance. At Dinghy we might just have the perfect flexible cover for you, you can get a no obligation quote here.

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About Ben Wilks

Ben Wilks has worked in insurance and technology for over 12 years. Having seen the trouble freelancers had getting insurance to suit their unique lifestyle he set about solving it. Ben is passionate about business as a force for social good. When not making insurance better, Ben spends his time on water, whether liquid or snow state. In 2017 he co-founded getdinghy.com, a B Corp (pending) insurance provider that specialises in freelancer insurance.

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