There’s a disconnect between working class and more financially secure people regarding the phrase “I can’t work for free,” and I think that needs to be cleared up, because it is undermining an important part of our national conversation about working – both working for yourself and working for other people.
When a working-class person says “I can’t work for free”, if a more monied person hears this, they usually respond “I work for free all the time!”. The working class person is saying that they cannot live without having their basic needs met, or at least cannot work without some kind of compensation. When you are just starting as an employee, you usually don’t have any savings to live on while you build your experience and reputation, so you need money for food and shelter. Someone who is already financially established can get away with “working for free” to build their reputation.
When a person with money and a business says they are “working for free”, they are generating reputation and advertisement for their existing business. When a person has multiple products already produced and ready for sale, doing a 15 minute interview that will be spread to some corner of the world that might not have heard of you is something worthwhile and valuable. That’s not the case when you are an employee.
When you are a worker, life is very different. You sell your labor, and once you are hired somewhere, everything you have to offer (your skill and your time) is being consumed on the job. The companies asking for free labor are generally not charitable non-profits. If they were, asking for freebies wouldn’t be as offensive. No, the people who ask you to “work for free” are often major for-profit companies, and their hope is that talented but naive people who will be easily exploited for their own profits will sign up. They offer “experience” and “reputation”, but those things don’t pay the rent and they absolutely do not pay off mounting student loans. The empty promise is that one day, you might even get a paying job – maybe here, maybe somewhere else, but no guarantees. When you are a multi-million dollar company, you can do better than that for a employees. Even if a business is smaller or just starting, some kind of compensation is in order (e.g. royalties or part-ownership that might one day pay off).
There is also a substantial difference between the rightfully maligned “unpaid internship” and working as an entrepreneur. When somebody is “working for free” as an entrepreneur, their work is self-directed and self-promoted. They work as much or as little as they want, meet their own standards, and most importantly get to keep all the benefits of that work. There is a big difference between doing a 15 minute interview for a website (which will then be promoted all over the country), and doing artwork for a company without compensation.
Working at an unpaid internship is very much like working at a job – set hours, directed work, and something that you are expected to be producing for an employer. The biggest differences are what you can expect to get paid for it, and how much experience they demand that you have, but anything useful you produce is still taken by the company.
If you are working for somebody else, you deserve to have at least your most basic needs met by them. Employees and interns cannot possibly accept less than that. When I hear “work for the experience”, I find myself asking “How valuable could the work experience be if you aren’t willing to pay me to do it?” Somehow, our country has reached a point where, after spending thousands of dollars and multiple years in college, professionals are still expected to spend years working without pay for the benefit of somebody else, and refusing to submit to this broken system makes you “unreasonable” and “unemployable”.