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

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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.


  1. I kind of feel like this was the right post at the right time! I am just about to start applying for jobs (the visa should be any week now) and it would seem my qualifications mean nothing til they are transferred! Grrrr, so I will probably work some crappy job after having had a great job back home. Fingers crossed all will end well!

    • Ugh 🙁 Well, never say never. Some employers are very open to foreign experience and degrees, it’s just a matter of finding the good fit!

  2. Yes, I definitely know what you mean with this post. And things are so much worse in France than in Canada.

    I can’t tell you how much unpaid work I have done in France. It would probably shock you. I hate this system of unpaid internships. I sometimes try to explain to French people why unpaid internships are not a good idea, but they never understand, telling me, “but don’t you think it’s good experience!”. Unpaid internships just continue the cycle of “hiring” unpaid workers and the idea that you can underpay people working in certain professions.

    I’m sure you know, but this is not even the ugliest part of working in France. I have to put up with so much living here. And it’s not because I’m a foreigner.

    • I hear you! I have a younger brother and a younger sister, both in their early twenties, about to enter the job market–or at least trying to. And I can’t believe the crap they have to put up with. Mind you, it was already pretty bad when I left the country in 2001. I remember being interviewed for a unpaid Mandarin translator position… I mean, seriously!

      You should write about your struggles. It’s a great catharsis and hopefully it will educate people in our field!

  3. Freelancers aren’t free!


    The marketplace is rife with commercial enterprises looking for free labour. Craigslist is full of these unpaid gigs, especially photography. But I have friends in other creative fields, such as illustration and writing, who get shafted regularly by clients who simply don’t want to pay.

    There are two groups I don’t charge: charities/non-profits/social enterprises and education. Everyone else gets an invoice.

  4. Thanks for sharing Zhu and I think they are just trying their luck and getting a free ride 🙁

    I’ve a similar experience in a different situation though….your superior piles up your work on the pretext that by enlarging your jobscope, you’ll ‘gain’ in the long run for ‘higher position’ but in reality?

    • I would do anything for you… anything… 🙂

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

  5. 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/coordinators 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!

  6. 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.


  7. 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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