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Working for free…

Posted by On Mar 12, 2013 In Ideas Tags ,

It seems of late I’ve been having an increasing number of conversations regarding working for free or in particular having people working for you for no pay. This has been spurred on by a number of things, one was the excellent TED talk by Amanda Palmer, which if haven’t seen it you really should, you can see it here. Another was on Seth Godin’s Blog where he writes “Should you work for free?” which was also picked up by BDOnline in particular regard to architects working for free. In particular the conversations have focussed on so-called interns. It’s a practice I had thought for a long time was not overly common here and was more particular to overseas work practice, however, locally it does now seem to be increasingly common.

Upfront I will say I have not been comfortable with the idea of not paying anyone for services rendered, especially if they’re trained and experienced in the area related to the work they have undertaken for me. Both Seth Godin and Amanda Palmer have made some excellent points in counter to my discomfort, and I agree that payment “in kind” whatever it may entail, certainly amounts to working for something as apposed to free. I would agree there are some excellent points to be made in favour of so called “free” labour. To my mind it suggests an alternative economy, one of in-kind payments, of a bartering system, of sharing love and community, and it’s an enthralling and seductive idea, giving me pause for consideration. When it comes to my profession in architecture, however, I am not entirely convinced.

My principal unease about working for free is whether it amounts to a subsidy for the employer. Seth Godin raises the question, in this consideration, “Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?” In asking this, the implication is that responding “NO” suggests it may be OK to work for free. Personally I think the more important question is: Should they pay people to do this work? which I think is a much harder one to answer. I could be wrong, but it appears to me that the unpaid internship only occurs in the lesser paid occupations such as in the Arts, Journalism, Architecture and so on. Does anyone in Law, Finance, etc, undertake unpaid internships? I suspect not, but maybe I’m wrong. Nevertheless it seems to me that this sets up a vicious cycle where it is accepted that unpaid internships are a right of passage, that generally everyone must do them to gain the necessary experience in order to be employable for cash. It becomes the norm and it becomes increasingly difficult to break such an attitude and cycle.

My question then is why are we as architects (journalists, arts administrators, etc) unable to pay all those people we employ? Why are we not being paid enough in order to allow everyone the opportunity for a decent day’s pay for an honest day’s work? I don’t really have an answer, but I suggest that everyone should stand up and say NO! I will not work for nothing, I will not work at a discounted rate and in-kind pay does not keep food on my table and the light on in my fridge. It’s the first step in breaking the cycle. We can then move on and suggest that our work as a profession (whatever that may be) is actually worth far more than we are being paid to do it.

Endnote: For the record, at Redshift our policy is that everyone working here is paid for every hour of work they do on a project we are being paid to do. There’s no time off in lieu (which anecdotally never covers the work that is done anyway), just pay by the hour, all hours. We generally tell people that offer their services to us for for free that unless we have the work and income to pay them, we will not take them on.

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