There’s been a great deal of criticism thrown at organisations who use unpaid labour, and – in my opinion – for very good reason. All those contributing to the bottom line of a business, whether interns, writers, creatives, school leavers, deserve to be paid for their labour.
Having said that, I have been one of the Great Unpaid. I wrote several unpaid pieces for Fairfax when I was starting out, wrote for a major women’s website for two full years without pay, and have appeared on television countless times without any remuneration at all.
In every circumstance, I have gained something positive from the experience, primarily exposure to an readership, and new, paid opportunities. But, though I was aware not to allow myself to become exploited, I occasionally jumped ship a little late in the piece.
So how do you know when to stop and when an opportunity becomes exploitation by business?
- Make sure you have clear goals. What are you hoping to gain from working for free? Exposure? Experience? A good reference? Contacts? A paid job? Only by having clear goals will you know when you have achieved your aim and when it is time to move on.
- Put a stop loss on your investment. Give yourself a period of time to dedicate to working for free, and then move on, even if you haven’t reached your goals.
- Be aware of what is going on around you. Watch. Listen. Learn. Do not assume. Do not be afraid to ask questions. If others are being paid and you are not, if others are being offered opportunities that you are not, then speak up. If it becomes clear that you are being passed over then move on.
- Ask for feedback. At the very least, a period of working for free should offer you a learning experience, a chance to develop and consolidate skills. Use the opportunity to get as much feedback as possible on the work you are doing from others in the organisation.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Never assume that an unpaid position will lead to paid work. Continue to look for paid work, and if offered, give the organisation in which you are volunteering a chance to match that offer. Either way, you are in a stronger position to seek work when you are employed, even if that employment is unpaid.