Voluntary Living Wage?

I’ve left this a few weeks before writing on the subject. The initial trigger was a job advert to which public reaction was polarised. I’ll explain why I flagged it for concern.

I initially glimpsed it on Twitter, thinking it would be perfect for my ‘twitcher’ mother. The successful candidates would be undertaking data collection during the nesting season of small birds in the wild. It sounded brilliant for her; until I read the full details.

A postgraduate researcher was looking to recruit three or four, unpaid research assistants for three and a half months; typically walking for 8+ hours a day for 6 to 7 days a week. The advert stated you should agree to work the whole length of the project, and have a minimum of an undergraduate degree.

This was not sounding reasonable, nor was it legal. HMRC would have something to say about the working hours and lack of renumeration. A majority of people agreed with me, including the HR department of the organisation unknowingly represented in the advert, who got it removed. It seems the researcher concerned had been badly advised about the wording of the advert, admitting that the advert didn’t reflect the actual role. I understand the delicate position that researchers are in; trusting advice from experienced mentors, and it was not the researcher I had a problem with; it was the ill-informed who provided guidance on an advert which would cause reputation damage to their organisation.

Why do I say repetitional damage, and why did this issue resonate so much with me? As someone who works for themselves as well as working part time for another organisation, my time has a value attached to it. I want to stress that this isn’t always a monetary value, I need time to relax, live and perform the voluntary works that I have always enjoyed. I do have a life afterall. These things are equally as important to me as a human and I gain nothing monetary from them.

However, what I call ‘work’ does have a cost and a common bugbear with fellow freelancers and artists is being asked to undertake unpaid work for their profile.¬†Anyone subscribed to the PSCI-COM mailing list will be familiar with the passion that this topic imbues. When talking with aspiring science communicators, the advice is not to undertake unpaid internships unless you are sure you will definitely benefit from it. At a certain stage, these opportunities may seem like a good thing, as can be seen on the ‘experience’ page of the BIG STEM Communicators Network website. Even I have undertaken voluntary work for experience and because I knew I would gain something from it. It doesn’t sound very altruistic, but the system encourages abuse and interns can be too often viewed as convenient slaves. Always ask yourself what you want from an opportunity and ensure you can reasonably get it. Also ask how much you will be left out of profit at the end of it. Can you afford to do something, even if you love it? I’ll let you decide how the above advert measures on these terms.

As a freelancer, people sometimes misunderstand how artists charge what they do for what appears to be standing up for an hour or so. What is unseen is the amount of effort and time put into research, development and preparation for shows and events. As well as those things, which never get seen, we also have to maintain our business; run our office, file accounts and tax returns, prepare invoices, chase work offers, manage our websites, bid for grants and pay our own bills.¬†All this cost gets added to our day rate. Even so, there is a limit to what people will pay for what I do. As such, I don’t make a lot of money from freelancing, but I do enjoy what I do. I’m prepared to do that because I can; probably because I also work part time to support it.

Ironically, today a voluntary event I spent a day preparing for was cancelled. So I returned borrowed equipment, ordered some other stuff, reset materials I used last week, did my accounts and wrote this article. Today has cost me so far. Can I afford to do this for the next three and a half months? I personally don’t know any one that can, not without a trust fund.

I realise this is contentious topic, and one that can never be black and white. Every person will reflect on the advert and decide whether they would be prepared to do it or not. We all have different circumstances and needs. If anything, I’m just shedding a little light on the issues that face fellow freelance performers, living by a ‘gig economy’ and not making a fortune, or even a living wage.