Unpaid work. The phrase might conjure up images of desolate Dickensian workhouses but, in reality, today it actually affects many different sectors of the workforce – even more glamorous parts like the creative industry. But if it’s so widespread, why don’t we just do the same as unpaid internships and ban unpaid work altogether? Well, as always, it’s more complicated than that.
For starters, there’s an army of budding, mostly young creative freelancers out there willing to accept unpaid work to get a leg up the slippery career ladder. My organisation, IPSE, researched this issue as part of a campaign against free work among creative freelancers. According to 54 per cent of people, their main reason for working for free was to gain exposure. Unsurprisingly, for another 20 per cent it was because unpaid work is standard practice in their sector. A further 20 per cent said their clients did not pay them what they were owed.
Other studies we have done of the wider freelance population found 43 per cent took some form of unpaid work, whether out of choice or not – that’s a staggering two million people.
This has a massive impact on the people affected. In the same study on creative freelancers, we found that, on average, people in that industry were losing a whopping £5,400 a year because of unpaid work. That might be fine for lucky freelancers with deep pockets but, for those more hard done by, this is bad news for social mobility. At IPSE, we strongly believe all work has value, whether you can afford to work for free or not.
There are good reasons for stopping short of an outright ban though. First, in practice it is very difficult to legally ban people from offering their work for free. It would also mean you would have to kiss goodbye to things like the important lifeline of pro-bono legal aid (that means getting a free lawyer, to you and I). In an age where government-provided legal aid has been cut to the bone, we need pro-bono legal support more than ever. The same applies to a whole host of other voluntary areas.
That’s why, instead of an outright ban, we should focus on changing the culture of unpaid work – and our poor payment culture more generally. This starts with Small Business Commissioner Paul Uppal, the man charged with fixing this thorny issue. Mr Uppal has some limited powers to name and shame, but to shift the culture around unpaid work the commissioner needs the power to fine the worst offenders and the businesses that benefit most from the practice. He should also press ahead with his traffic light system to make people aware of late-paying firms and expand it to unpaid work, so freelancers can make informed choices about who to work with and who to avoid.
If we want to be a little less workhouse and a little more 21st century, that’s where the change needs to happen.