Is It Ever Okay To Work For Free?

Anyone who has worked in a creative industry, including audio, has probably been asked at some point to work for free.

We’ve all seen the ads for unpaid internships that promise a wealth of experience, but with no guarantee of a permanent position at the end. Then there are the “jobs” that crop up on LinkedIn and seem perfectly fine until you get to the bottom of the listing and see the words:

“We can’t afford to pay anyone right now.”

Is it ever acceptable to expect someone to work for free?

When I was a student, I was eager to gain any bit of experience I could get my hands on. I’d spend each summer emailing radio stations and production companies, hoping for a chance to shadow for a day at the very least. At that early stage in my audio journey, I didn’t care what was involved as long as it meant getting a foot in the door. Immediately after graduating, when jobs were hard to come by, I was still open to the idea of unpaid work — within reason. There were opportunities I turned down because the cons outweighed the pros. Transport, accommodation, and the ability to feed yourself all have to be considered, and sometimes it’s just not worth the added stress.

I understand the desperation students and graduates often feel, because I’ve been there myself. I also understand that plenty of companies take on interns with a view to hiring them later. They offer people a chance to learn and grow, and to feel like a valued member of the team. But there are still too many out there who exploit graduates. They’re not interested in hiring someone; they just want free labour for as long as they can get it, before moving on to the next person. This kind of attitude usually tells you everything you need to know about the work culture at that company.

Internships are one thing; free labour masquerading as a full-time job is another. I’m not including volunteer work when I say this. People who get involved in community radio, for example, do so on the understanding that they’re volunteering, and that can be for a variety of reasons. But you should always be wary of anything that appears to be a 9-5 job with a detailed list of responsibilities, but no pay. I was browsing LinkedIn recently and came across a London-based production company looking for a podcast producer. The job looked great on the surface. Then came the kicker: “Unfortunately we have no budget right now but hope to be able to pay our employees in the future.” But are you even an employee if you’re not getting paid? I thought to myself, surely no one will apply for something that requires them to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, with no time for other (paid) work, and therefore no means of paying rent or bills? I was wrong. The role had over 160 applications when I last checked.

The podcast world can be especially frustrating in this regard. More people than ever before are starting their own podcasts, and as many of them are hobbyists, they understandably don’t want to spend money on a professional editing service. But I am increasingly noticing professional podcasters who decide to take on an editor, yet are unwilling to pay them. Maybe it’s because they think it’s a quick and easy job — but if that were the case, they’d just do it themselves in the first place, right? No matter what the reason is, if they are earning money from it themselves, their editor should be too.

To sum up, there are circumstances where it’s okay to work for free — as long as you’re not being taken advantage of. If you’re just starting out in your career and you stand to learn something that will genuinely help you progress, that’s a good thing. So is returning the favour for a friend who may have previously helped you out, or volunteering your time and skills for an organisation or cause you care about (if you can afford to do so). But if you find yourself putting in long hours and a lot of effort for no reward, it’s probably best to reconsider your options

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