As NUJ freelance organiser John Toner observed at the recent Delegates’ Meeting, “unpaid work is the curse of the freelance classes”. The joint threats of unpaid “internships” and the expectations of free content – a worrying symptom of the digital transition – have combined to make it harder than ever for freelances to make a living.
It would be great if the union movement started to tackle freelance rights seriously – as John is calling for.
Meanwhile, some freelances are fighting back.
Yes, there’s a lot of support and solidarity in being part of a union. But there’s also support and solidarity in other places – like Facebook.
Last year, I joined a Facebook group called Stop Working For Free. Run by journalists Barney Hoskyns and Mark Pringle, it now has over 8,000 members: writers, photographers, musicians and others. Many are also NUJ members.
The group has a great manifesto, starting off: “Join us in WITHDRAWING UNPAID LABOUR from the creative and media industries. The exploitation of freelance content providers has gone on too long, and we are all responsible for letting it happen.”
They argue that if you accept unpaid work now, for “exposure”, you jeopardise the livelihoods of experienced freelances now – and your own in the future. And they ask: “If you have any concern at all for your economic future as a content provider – and for the future of subsequent generations of such providers – please don’t ignore this issue.”
The message to “the exploiters” is simple: “If you are making money from the labour of others, then you should share that wealth with them.”
You can read the whole thing by going to the group’s Facebook page and clicking on ‘About’.
The group is a place to let off steam, share experiences, and name and shame some of the media organisation that tell freelances “Sorry, we can’t pay you”. But it’s also a place for campaigning and information sharing. Members have shared advice and negotiating tactics, and passed on their knowledge about tricky copyright issues. And they have compiled excellent stock replies to requests for free work.
I will always advise fellow freelances to join a union. But I will also advise them to Stop Working For Free – and to join this group as well.