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Working for Free Should Not be an Option...

...unless it is your choice to be a volunteer. 


Next month, younger daughter will be working 9-5 in a nameless city far away, for a nameless company (I don't want to compromise her opportunity) for four weeks - no pay, no expenses. The minimum this will cost her for accommodation, the bus fare for the commute, and the return train fare, is likely to be £400 as it's come short-notice, and, despite other avenues, a rather distant Air B&B seems to be her only option. She's lucky, she has savings and we can help, but many haven't savings or family with cash to spare. I become more and more outraged at the way we've come to accept this as a normal, possibly necessary, part of what has turned into a highly selective employment system - where is inclusivity and equality now? In her chosen field, she'll be expected to spend 2 years doing this before anyone will consider offering a paid permanent post. At university, she had two years volunteering in this sector on the university campus, so she already has plenty of experience, but apparently this doesn't count.


When I worked in event management, I was often asked to run events for nothing. ' We can't pay because we're a charity'. I am more than happy to make donations to charity on my own terms, and I frequently do. I think they do a fantastic job of plugging the hole for which government once used to take responsibility. But this was my job, and I wasn't a charity. It was a hard message to get across. I felt guilty and the charities thought I was mean. I always gave my advice free of charge, but I couldn't give hours of my time gratis, when it prevented me working for someone else for money.


As writers, we know we have to shoulder part of the burden to promote our work, and reasonable duties are a pleasure - who wouldn't want to give their time freely at a launch, a radio interview or local bookshop reading? For those who work as writers full-time, I've heard that the ever increasing round of festivals and live-lit events, not only takes its toll on the bank balance - it seems a rare thing to be even offered expenses - but it eats into available writing time, so output becomes undermined. For those of us who are 'struggling' writers, it seems a tough call to have to shell out for travel costs to distant cities and even one night's accommodation with no help at all. Yes, there's the opportunity to sell books, but paltry percentages mean you have to shift a shed-load of books for the privilege. In my experience, the smaller the event, the more generous they are. Our own Cafe Writers has always appreciated this problem and valued their readers. Would that there were more of the same.

No doubt you've heard about the stand Philip Pullman has made, resigning as chair of the Oxford Literary Festival over the issue of unpaid appearances from professional writers. Now there are more high-profile writers taking a stand and walking away. Good! Perhaps this pernicious, creeping practice, which we've all reluctantly accepted, has peaked and is about to be revealed and understood for what it is. Exploitation.


OK rant over! But do read the embedded article that inspired this: ALCS

©2020 Sarah Passingham