Stop Asking Me to Work for Free!

By Rachel Wong 

Dollar-sign-eye“So, do you have any questions?” I had mhmed and uh-huhed through most of the latter part of the phone call. The man on the other line was looking for someone to maintain his company’s social media content.

The main query I had was usually the most awkward for me to ask: “What is your budget for this position?”

“Well, at the moment, we’re looking to have someone volunteer their time as we are still starting out and don’t have much funds.”

I stared at the phone in my hand. Did I hear correctly? “What you’re saying is there isn’t any compensation of any kind?”

“Monetarily? No. I pride myself in maintaining relationships on a basis of mutual benefit. The compensation would likely be in building connections.”

“Like favors,” I deadpanned.


It was a simple choice. “I thank you for your consideration, but I think, considering my bandwidth, I simply can not afford work for free.”

“Working for networking benefits,” he clarified. After another ten minutes of him explaining how I can benefit outside of pay, I declined again, eager to get off the phone.

What makes someone entitled to something? In modern world culture, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: wanting and expecting people to work for free. I am not talking about unpaid internships or assistantships in which you absolutely learn applicable skills in your field, rather certain businesses and even consumers with the preconceived notion that they can and SHOULD get quality work/products for nothing or next to nothing.

The above conversation was one of a few that happened to me in the past few years. I, as a new freelancer, already have lower average rates when compared to my median counterparts. Young and without many financial obligations, I can afford to do so. Yet, for some, when I discuss monetary pay with them, they gape. It isn’t a number I had just randomly pulled out of my head – I spent hours researching freelancing taxes, average local and national rates for similar positions, bandwidth capacity I can afford at that rate, flex hours and costs of work-applicable expenses – but some insist that my rate is too high.

“Too high.” “Too expensive.” To be frank, when I hear that, I am insulted. Plain and simple, especially when I’m undercharging. I, and other workers who have similar stories, am not upset when people say that they honestly can not afford a specific rate, but when one hears “too expensive,” it implies that the service or product being offered is not worth that rate, undervaluing the work a fellow human being specializes and dedicates their time and effort in. This may not be the intention, but it does produce that effect.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 11.41.31 AMA fellow writer on Twitter posted a recent similar predicament, prompting her to quip, “Perhaps I should train to be a plumber. No one asks for a toilet for free.”

The person she was talking to certainly wouldn’t work for free, so why was there an expectation for her to do so? Perhaps it was the unrealistic expectation that creatives, and other workers who don’t have precisely quantifiable results from their job (unlike a handyman or a computer programmer, for example), can simply complete a task or project in minimal time. They do not consider the labor in planning and, then, creating and curating for bespoke service.

Friends of mine have had similar experiences. One of them, Stephanie, does lace bow inserts, a grueling and long task, for many of her loungewear items in her clothing line. She was once asked by a woman why her (then underpriced at $275) lace insert silk camisole wasn’t $20, nearly making her burst into tears.

The cost of lace and silk crepe de chine swatches do not even cost that little.

She wasn’t hurt at the fact that customer (assumedly) couldn’t afford it within her current budget, as there is also a target audience for any product or service, but expected such an unreasonably low price for something of high quality. In other words, it’s the business’s fault that consumer can not afford it, because the cost is too “unreasonable,” and the consumer is entitled to whatever s/he needs or wants for a miniscule price, or even free.

Similarly, I hear people bitch and moan about production of many items on the market are being done overseas, but gape and ask why prices for American products are so much higher than imports. Let’s put this in perspective. Jane Consumer sees a novelty print dress that she absolutely loves, but it is $100 and she simply can not afford it. Why can’t she get what she wants? The company simply needs to stop overcharging…right?

A dress can use 3 to 7 yards of fabric with the standard width of 44”. For argument’s sake, let’s average it out to 5 yards a dress. Many novelty printed fabrics go for $7.50 – $9.25 per yard (average $8.38). Therefore, cost for materials alone – assuming that Jane Consumer already has the necessary sewing supplies – would be $41.90 (not including shipping). It would take her about an hour or two to lay out the dress pattern and cut it (under the assumption that she has the skills to do so), and 8 – 10 hours to sew everything together, as she is not an experienced seamstress. With a total of about 11 hours to complete the dress, start to finish, if she were to sell it at the price she saw of $100, she would be paying herself $5.28 an hour, a little less than TWO DOLLARS under the national minimum average. If Jane Consumer was an experienced seamstress, it may have taken her 5 hours, earning her $11.62, only ten cents above livable wage for NYC. At even the best scenario, should Jane Consumer be charging what she thought was too pricey for that same dress, she would, in reality, just be scraping by.

What’s my point?

Rates are not purposefully done to cause personal offense. A wise woman once told me that every company is supposed to attract a type of person and repel another. It just so happens that when a product or service is considered desirable, coupled with a consumer’s feeling of entitlement, nasty things can result.

The average consumer has skewed perceptions on the value of products or services rendered. The reflex is to shift into righteous indignation: “I see something I like or need, but it is more than I can pay, so the other party must be trying to squeeze money out of me!” With freelancers and other small businesses, the majority of the time it is really NOT the case. Just because one sees a low price at H&M or American Eagle, does not give one the right to ask the same for a vaguely similar, but essentially different product. Something may not monetarily cost a lot to you, but it may be costing the livelihood or the lives of those who produce your products, like the 72 people who were killed in a factory fire in the Philippines this past May.

Referring back to the interviewer (yes, that was a phone interview) who asked me to work for him for free, he knew that some people would be willing to do so. It is a reasonable assumption, however, that the quality workers that he is looking for would, well, not. Those who would are more likely to have less experience in the same field, thus causing him to not be completely satisfied with the transaction.

My request to you, dear reader, is to, as a consumer, consider the realistic cost of the items you buy. In addition, if one can not pay the price of an item or service, there are better ways to say so than “Your prices are too high!”

As many of us graduate college and shift into the work force, we provide services and products to our employers and the audience that our companies are geared to. Keep in mind the value of the items you obtain, but also the value of YOUR work. It is fair to ask for a rate that you know you are worth. Do not inflate the salary you want to get paid for the mere act of having that higher salary, but do not undervalue your value either. It is okay to ask for more (provided have the experience to back it).

Millennials, especially millennial women, are not negotiating their salaries starting at their first job, which can cost them an average of $500,000 over the course of their careers.

Know the worth and value of the work of others. And know yours.

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