When is It OK to Work for Free?

When is It OK to Work for Free?

During the Great Resignation of 2021, working conditions and the inarguable need for an actual living wage have been rightfully put front and center in every conversation about work, in every industry. IATSE was within hours of what would have been (and still might be) one of the largest union strikes in the country, with 99% support from members. As such, a lot of working conditions that used to be taken for granted as “how things are” are under more scrutiny than ever, including the common practice of asking freelancers and entry-level, aspiring creatives to work for free.

We can talk all day about how unpaid internships are predatory and inherently discriminatory toward students and young people who can’t afford to be unpaid. We can talk all night about how exploitative the marketplace is for freelancers, even with years of experience under their belts, who are constantly offered exposure rather than their quoted rate without considering that all that exposes them to is … more work for exposure.

It’s an endless, unpaid cycle.

And it sucks.

I do think that these conversations have led to a lack of nuance around navigating the creative industries, especially if you’re new to them and don’t necessarily want to start as an assistant (or don’t have the experience required to be competitive as an assistant hire). Hot take: there are absolutely still good, valid, non-exploitative reasons to work for free. Freelance solo producer Shelby Zoe Coley got their start doing unpaid (and unasked-for) audition filmography at shows and activist events, and they're now a full time, fully paid film freelancer.

But you need to be careful, set clear boundaries, and have an ironclad goal in mind for when to turn the tap off and send a bill.

So, how do you determine when it’s OK to work for free?

Would you have gone anyways?

Is this an event you were already planning to attend? Is this a project you were planning to work on without broaching pay? Is it a cause you would have volunteered for? And, arguably most importantly, would this gig be on your off-time and not competing with paid work?

Sometimes, pay is a bonus and not a requirement if your attendance was guaranteed because you believe in the cause, or you already had a ticket, or you’re doing your friend a favor because you love their script. I think in our rush to insist on better pay and working conditions generally, we’ve pivoted to the other extreme where we’re suspicious of friends and activist organizations who ask for skilled volunteers.

Sometimes it’s not exploitative, there just isn’t any money, so be honest: is this a job you need to pay rent, or something you think will be a good use of your time regardless?

Are there non-monetary benefits?

Will you get a free ticket to attend something you couldn't have gotten into otherwise? Can you bring a friend? Will they feed you, give you a ride, or introduce you to potential paid clients despite not, themselves, paying you? Not all benefits to working are monetary, and especially as you’re building your network and portfolio, it’s worth considering how in-kind exchanges might actually be just as valuable as a check in the mail.

Of course, this is where we might get into a different kind of dangerous water—I call it the Start Up Grift, where low pay is obscured by “awesome benefits” like unlimited paid vacation (which is used less than a limited PTO policy), vegan snacks in the break room, and a ping-pong table in the conference room. When I’m advocating for considering in-kind benefits to low or unpaid work, I don’t mean in perpetuity. I’m certainly not advocating for this if you’re several years into a part or full-time freelancing career. But when you’re new, or if business leads have stalled, and you think you can trade a free project for other benefits that feel worth it to you, you shouldn’t feel guilty or taken advantage of. If you can safely say no, you’re the one in control, so see what that can net you in-kind.

Can you barter for future work?

You may not get paid for this particular gig, but can you source free labor for your own projects as a result of your volunteer efforts here? Can they offer support in the future in other ways, like location or gear access, or promotion of your work and services to their networks? Will this person or organization need more work in the future with bigger budgets?

Again, sometimes a lack of a paycheck isn’t exploitative, there just isn’t any money right now. But right now isn’t forever, and if you think this is a valuable connection to make with either guarantees or strong possibilities of future work or in-kind support, there’s no harm in working it into your schedule if it doesn’t conflict with better paid opportunities.

Will this fill out your reel/resume?

Working for the experience or exposure actually can be valuable, if it allows you to add a new skill or shot to your portfolio or reel. And being able to namedrop an impressive former client can be valuable as well in negotiating better work and rates in the future. But if it's the same work you've already done or have already been paid for, and the company absolutely can afford it ... give ‘em the ol “fuck you, pay me” and otherwise walk away.

*Feature photo by Reynaldo #brigworkz Brigantty (Pexels)

Bri Castellini is a screenwriter, director, adjunct professor, and, like any good millennial, a podcaster. She’s known for the short film Ace and Anxious and the podcast Breaking Out of Breaking In.
More posts by Bri Castellini.
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