Should I Work For Free?
If you love the Arts, then at some point in your life you will be asked to work for free.
Ask anyone you know, and I guarantee every one of them will have been approached with a great opportunity for exposure or experience, or sometimes just a big grovelling plea for help – for them to give their time and their skills to someone else for nothing in return.
And make no mistake. Some of these will be thoroughly deserving projects that simply could never come to life without people willing to give their time for free. Some venues are run on a shoestring budget, with no central funding, and can only open because of the generosity of those who are happy to volunteer.
Sometimes, for the student or recent graduate looking to find their path in a competitive world, offering to shadow a designer, be a runner for a director, or perform in that fringe ‘profit share’ show for your mate could lead to the break you’ve been waiting for. At the least, it’s something positive to put on your otherwise rather empty CV.
Just always know what you’re getting into.
Find out what is and isn’t payable (will they cover your travel, pay for your lunch?). How long is your day expected to be? How many days will they expect you to work? Who are you reporting to and will you be credited for your work, even if you are not paid for it? Wherever possible, make sure you get all of the above in writing (an email will suffice).
Not a week goes by where I don’t see an unpaid job advertised, usually on social media, asking for someone ‘starting out, who is looking for the experience.’ Recently, the theatre press and unions have begun focussing on companies who use free or below-minimum-wage labour for their productions, labelling skilled positions as internships or work experience.
I rarely take unpaid jobs. Occasionally I will do a friend a favour – the classic ‘mates rates’ which means buy me lunch, perhaps a beer or two after work and remember that you owe me a favour in return sometime.
I don’t turn down unpaid work to be difficult. I just know that I could fill my calendar much more easily than I could then fill my shopping trolley at the end of the week in Tesco, if I start taking on unpaid work.
And the same applies to Charity work. It’s not that I don’t think your charity is a cause worthy of support, it’s just that my skills are how I earn a living and, in order to support any charities, I first need to be paid. Every company and every person I know has been asked what discount they will offer for a charity event. Each will have their own policy according to what they can afford within their financial year. They just can’t support all of them.
It must be said though, that unpaid work can lead to great things for some.
I could name several friends who, in the early stages of their career in the Arts, took on unpaid (or low paid) jobs and who have now gone on to great success. Each has their own story to tell about how those initial contacts led them onto other greater opportunities. Each will probably have one or two horror stories to tell too, but they might arguably not have got to where they are today without those experiences.
So, I’m definitely not advocating never taking work unless it’s paid. I’m just saying be sure what reason you are doing it for.
It could be you really believe in and want to support the project.
It could be getting a foot in the door - when you really admire the person or company you will be working for and want to learn from them and seek future (paid!) opportunities.
Perhaps it’s a trade – you give your skills and time for their project and (hopefully) they will come through for you in the future when you need their help.
I would just say always look at the organisation you are working for – could they afford for this to be a paid opportunity? If so, are they just looking to maximise their own profits by finding someone prepared to work for free or are they genuinely looking to help someone develop their own career through the experience they offer?
There are sharks out there and make no mistake; they will take a bite out of anyone prepared to freely dip their toe in the water, before moving on to munch on the next person once they have stripped yours to the bone.
But there are also many genuine people looking for extra help and prepared to pass on their experience to those looking for a step up onto the ladder.