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Free labour is never truly free

Despite the fact that the rest of the world celebrates labour on 1 May, the United States, ever determined to be contrarian, chooses to observe Labour Day on the first Monday of September. Today, it seems fitting to give a shoutout to all the people who work tirelessly in labour organising to make the workplace happier, safer, fairer, and more dignified for all workers, whether they be picking strawberries in the fields of California’s Central Valley or working on high-end negotiations for the Department of State.

No matter what a worker’s identity or origins may be, that worker deserves respect in the workplace. With the assault on labour and workers’ rights in the United States, many of the gains made in the last century have become very fragile, and there’s a slow growth in awareness of the fact that labour victories must be continually reinforced to keep them. A new appreciation for what the labour movement has wrought is developing in many communities that didn’t think about these issues before the economic meltdown forced them to realise the impact of labour on their daily lives.

Today is also a day when I think of the people who are working on Labour Day—those who keep the vital systems we need moving in motion, like doctors and nurses, bus drivers, firefighters. And those who must work because they have no choice, because they cannot afford the time off and they work for workplaces that don’t observe the holiday; restaurant staff, retail clerks, other service workers for whom the calendar never pauses.

And of freelancers, a growing segment of the working population in the United States. 30% of the population is employed in ‘contingent’ labour, either full or part time, and 55% of those people are women. Working as a freelancer is difficult, and the level of difficulty is often wildly underestimated by people who may see it as romantic or fascinating, but not hard.

Freelancers have no institutional support—we must build and maintain our own customer base while also working and promoting ourselves to ensure that we continually attract more work. We are simultaneously accountants, marketers, developers, researchers, fact checkers, creative teams. We have no health coverage, no retirement accounts, no paid vacations, no maternity leave, no sick days. We pay both individual income tax and self-employment tax, and our operating expenses can be high because of the nature of our work. For all that the government claims to support small business and entrepreneurship, being a freelancer comes with none of these much-touted government benefits for people supposedly living the American dream.

I am far from the only freelancer I know who works twelve to sixteen hour days, every day.

‘It must be so nice,’ people say, ‘to be able to work from home.’

And it is. I’m not going to lie about that. It’s nice to work in a job I love, doing things I care about. But that doesn’t mean it’s not immensely difficult, and it’s why I’ve always hated the saying ‘find a job doing something you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.’ What freelancers do is work even if they love their work and are excited about all the things they get a chance to do as part of their jobs.

And often that work is profoundly devalued, especially in the case of women freelancers. From women journalists having their work casually appropriated by men, often men who are full-time staff writers at major publications, to mothers working from home in a variety of fields, women working in the freelance trade are dismissed. Their work is treated as a hobby or supplemental income when it may be the thing keeping their households glued together. People speak, with a sneer, about ‘housewives’ and the valueless nature of freelance work performed by women.

There’s a sense that people think it’s oh-so-quaint, how those little women have managed to carve out a little niche for themselves. Isn’t it cute, how they play a pretend version of what the men do. It’s assumed that the stakes are lower for women in the freelance community.

Women’s work has always been treated as lesser, even when they’re performing the same work men do, and women freelancers are treated like they’re playing a fun game. They, and their work, are not taken seriously; and in an economy where a growing number of workers are turning freelance by choice or circumstances, that’s a significant problem. Women are already at a disadvantage in the workplace and these divides underscore that disadvantage.

Women have a net worth lower than that of men, and that number is even lower for women in minority groups, like disabled women and women of colour. With dismissive attitudes about freelancing comes the assumption that it’s appropriate to exploit freelancers in general, and especially women. Pay rates for freelance work are often low, especially in writing, where the changing nature of the creative landscape is making it increasingly hard to make a living. Women writers are offered exposure instead of pay, as though that will put food on their tables, or tiny honorariums, while men get larger cheques for opinion editorials and investigative reports.

Comparing experiences within my own professional circles as a creative freelancer, I’ve noted that numerous women tell me stories about being asked to do work for free or at very low pay, often with the implication that they have an ethical obligation to do so for the cause. Women working in social justice journalism are viewed with disdain if they argue that their work has value, and that they should be compensated for it. Meanwhile, a lot of my male freelancing friends tell me they’re rarely, if ever, approached with demands to provide free work, and they’re offered more for doing the same work than the women they know.

Gendered divides persist in every industry, and freelancing is no exception. The largely hidden and poorly understood nature of the exploitation of freelance creative professionals in particular makes it very hard to fight the attitudes that allow it to continue. Last year, Ed Yong confronted the issue head-on with his Science Writing I’d Pay to Read piece, talking about how he puts his money where his mouth is and pays for work that was produced for free; much as subscribers here at Tiger Beatdown do when they make a one-time donation or sign up for a continuous subscription.

His piece and the responses to it highlighted the fact that many writers are expected to produce work for free, and that this is unfair and devaluing. The fact that so many of these writers are women adds an extra layer of complexity to the situation. What does it say about progressive communities in particular that there’s a continued expectation of free labour on the part of women to advance the cause? Why is interest in protecting freelancers so limited in almost everyone except freelancers?


  1. moviemaedchen wrote:

    Excellent piece, and a timely reminder to me to donate more to the writers/bloggers I read online, including here at tigerbeatdown. Thank you.

    One of the subjects I wrestle with in my own head often is how to work towards changing the work landscape into something less exploitative, and what that could look like in practice. The freelancer aspect is something I hadn’t considered in depth before, but it is really a key aspect.

    Monday, September 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  2. Jadey wrote:

    Excellent post. The only small thing I’ll add is that this is certainly not a US-only phenomenon – Canada also celebrates Labour Day today, and our workforce is dealing with many of the same problems.


    Monday, September 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Sara wrote:

    Also, our Labor Day was created in 1882. May 1st was officially recognized eight years later. So, for once, everyone else is contrary. 🙂

    Monday, September 3, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  4. scrumby wrote:

    That’s really not true and a misappropriation of history to boot. Labour Day or International Workers Day is a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket riots in Chicago where, while protestors marched for an eight hour workday, police were hit with an explosive device and fired into the crowd killing civilians and fellow officers. It became an international rallying day for worker’s rights and other affiliate movements of the time such as anarchists and communists. Labor Day on the other hand, was first proposed in 1882 but not recognized at a state level until 1887 and federally until 1894. President Cleveland specifically went with the September date to sever any connection with the May Day celebration and it’s associated far-left movements.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  5. Great post! I don’t know too much about the world of freelance writing, especially in social justice circles, so thank you.

    “What does it say about progressive communities in particular that there’s a continued expectation of free labour on the part of women to advance the cause?”

    That we’re a misogynist mess! It’s just like the fights over Gore Vidal or Julian Assange. Or that infamously racist slut-walk sign, “Women are the N* of the world.” Hey, let’s alienate and exclude people for the sake of solidarity, because that’s a coherent thing to do. 🙁

    Thanks for the history! Labor Day strikes me as a holiday for the sort of unions that are two-tiered; whose leadership Work Together with the bosses.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  6. OMG. This. Exactly what I needed to read while I pound the keyboard for yet another unpaid writing “opportunity” !!

    Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Dominique wrote:

    Whenever someone says they will pay with “gratitude and free copies”, I remind them that I can’t take that to the grocery store. Funny how I don’t get to pay anyone with “gratitude”. Quite honestly, I only blog for myself now, and only about what I like, so I keep all rights and control over my work. I won’t work for a pittance, either. The lowest I’ve accepted is 20 cents per word, and there are companies out there offering only $1-5 per 500 words. I’d rather do something else, so I do everything I can to do that. My writing is now secondary. And I will not listen to anyone who tells me that “if I really loved it, I would do it for free”. I need to eat as much as the next person. This is non-negotiable.

    Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Kristen wrote:

    This is awesome!

    Wednesday, September 12, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink