I Ain’t Working for Free (And Neither Should You)

Occupy Ottawa, October 2011

Occupy Ottawa, Octo­ber 2011

In the real world, I am an English-to-French trans­la­tor, as well as a bilin­gual copy­writer, edi­tor and proof­reader. I am self-employed and like most free­lancers, I am always look­ing to expand my port­fo­lio of clients.

Reg­u­larly, I apply for free­lance writ­ing and edit­ing gigs that match my skills, I con­tact trans­la­tion agen­cies and I keep a close eye on the mar­ket even though I already have a few reg­u­lar clients that keep me busy.

And you wouldn’t believe the crap I have to put up with as a freelancer.

Recently, I con­tacted a poten­tial client who, accord­ing to the job ad he pub­lished online, was look­ing for sev­eral copy­writ­ers and trans­la­tors. I sent my resume, a cover let­ter and a short intro­duc­tion by email. I received a lightning-fast reply: “Can you take an edit­ing test?” I sure can. Tests are stan­dard in the industry—they are the best way to show off your skills.

I com­pleted the test and the poten­tial client was pleased with the results. He offered me the gig a few days later. The catch was in the last sen­tence of his email: “You will see, it’s a great ‘byline’ experience—and a way to expand your portfolio!”

Oh, so you are not going to pay me for that ten-hours-a-week copy­writ­ing gig?

I will pass on the “opportunity”.

I wish that poten­tial client would have spec­i­fied he was look­ing for skilled pro­fes­sion­als will­ing to work for free—it would have saved me the has­sle of com­plet­ing the test and con­tact­ing him in the first place.

I sent a polite email explain­ing that I had enough work expe­ri­ence under my belt to expect being paid and that I was not look­ing to vol­un­teer my skills at the moment.

Unpaid gigs can be okay in some cir­cum­stances. For instance, to gain work expe­ri­ence in a new field, to help out char­i­ties, not-for-profit orga­ni­za­tions or NGOs who typ­i­cally have small bud­gets, to develop a spe­cific project, etc.

But it cer­tainly shouldn’t be expected in a nor­mal client-to-freelancer busi­ness relationship.

In the exam­ple above, the client was a major Cana­dian com­pany. I under­stand free­lance bud­gets are tight, but you can’t expect me to work for free. I have bills to pay too!

Unfor­tu­nately, “cre­ative” types such as design­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers, copy­writ­ers, musi­cians, etc. are often asked to vol­un­teer their skills and tal­ents under the false pre­tense of “build­ing their port­fo­lio”, “gain­ing expe­ri­ence and expo­sure” and so on.

It is the same in the blog­ging world. Pretty much every week, I get an email from a new travel web­site or Cana­dian news web­site invit­ing me to con­tribute with a few articles—for free. “You will get traf­fic from us!” “We are the fastest grow­ing web­site in that niche!” “We are reach­ing bil­lions of peo­ple!” “Think of the exposure!”

No, thank you. I will not pro­vide free con­tent for your new web­site. Seri­ously, what’s in there for me? What do I gain by con­tribut­ing? Traf­fic? I doubt it, if you pub­lish my arti­cles on your web­site with a tiny “byline” link.

Work­ing for free or for peanuts is rarely a good idea. First of all, you set a bad prece­dent: when you accept unpaid gigs, clients see free­lancers as dis­pos­able and always will­ing to con­tribute for free. Sec­ond, your work is valu­able and you deserve to be paid for your efforts. Writ­ing, for instance, may not sound as seri­ous as per­form­ing brain surgery or launch­ing a rocket into space, but it takes the right set of skills to get a point across, to make sen­tences flow, to make an impact. Pho­tog­ra­phy isn’t just about “hav­ing an expen­sive cam­era and press­ing on the shut­ter button”—not every­one can com­pose a pic­ture and cap­ture the right moment, not to men­tion the tech­ni­cal skills to actu­ally pro­duce a good snap­shot. Design­ers don’t just “click a few but­tons on Pho­to­shop” to make pretty icons and banners.

Other pro­fes­sion­als don’t work for free. Cre­ative peo­ple shouldn’t either.

And inci­den­tally, nei­ther should immigrants.

Don’t get me wrong: vol­un­teer­ing can be a great way to rebuild a net­work in your field when you arrive in Canada, to gain Cana­dian work expe­ri­ence and to update or expand your skills.

Just make sure you are not being taken advan­tage of. I know, this is eas­ier said than done! I per­son­ally think vol­un­teer­ing (out­side your favourite char­ity or cause to sup­port) should be a win-win expe­ri­ence, should be lim­ited in time and have clear objec­tives. Don’t think for a minute that employ­ers will hire you after you worked for free for a few months—why would they? They can just hire another intern who, like you, won’t be on the payroll!

Don’t get fooled by the Cana­dian expe­ri­ence “catch 22″. Your for­eign degrees and work expe­ri­ence are worth some­thing. These ads I found on Craiglist Ottawa are a good exam­ple of the “we need very skilled and qual­i­fied employ­ees but ooops, we won’t pay them” trend:


I had sev­eral great vol­un­teer­ing expe­ri­ences. For instance, I was an event pho­tog­ra­pher for var­i­ous asso­ci­a­tions in Ottawa, I vol­un­teered my lan­guage skills to edit resumes for new Cana­di­ans, I tutored kids in France, I gen­er­ally give my pic­tures a “non-commercial” cre­ative com­mons license, etc.

But I have to draw the line some­where and I refuse unpaid gigs when the client is a for-profit business.

I am not work­ing for free and nei­ther should you.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


    • I would do any­thing for you… anything… :-)

      (Seri­ously, I’d do a lot of friends. Not for multi­na­tional big corps though).

  1. I hear you.… Ever since I’ve moved to a more cre­ative field (events), I get the impres­sion that com­pa­nies do not take it seri­ously. I’ve now com­pleted a 3 months unpaid intern­ship in one of the most expen­sive cities in Europe. I didn’t get offered a per­ma­nent job because of the bad econ­omy… and am now left in a sea of aspir­ing event managers/coördinators that are will­ing to do any­thing for as lit­tle as trans­porta­tion costs. How can I beat that?

    • I am sorry to hear that you’ve been a vic­tim of the “unpaid intern­ship” trend :-( Yep, that sucks and I know how expen­sive Lon­don is!

  2. Hi Zhu, I’ve really enjoyed read­ing your arti­cles. I have a prin­ci­ple that vol­un­teer­ing should be for non-profit and social cause. As long as the other part can gen­er­ate finan­cial ben­e­fits from your skills, it is NOT vol­un­teer. How­ever, if the finan­cial ben­e­fits will be com­pletely used for social cause, it is ok to volunteer.


  3. Yes, I did on many occa­sions, mostly for social causes, the rest are for envi­ron­men­tal causes. I’ve learned a very pre­cious les­son when I’ve vol­un­teered for an NGO sup­port­ing mar­gin­alised women in one of the devel­op­ing coun­tries. After com­plet­ing the “free of charge” busi­ness plan, they used it to secure fund­ing and then they’ve just deliv­ered “ZERO”.
    i’m not sad about the busi­ness plan prepa­ra­tion, but about the poor women whom they had a chance for a bet­ter life and dignity.

    • Ugh, this is a huge turn down. Kudos to you for feel­ing sorry about these women rather than on your work being used. Yes, les­son learned, I guess…

      What are your moti­va­tions for vol­un­teer­ing? How did you get into it?

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