The Predatory Search And Exploitation of Free Labor

The industries we know and love are being built on our free labor, our hunt for “experience,” and our naivety about our worth.

by Cameron G. on September 15th, 2015

There is a new version of the “chicken vs. egg” conundrum: experience, or the job?

Eager job seekers look to “experience” on their journey to becoming experts in their field; they are told that this will open the closed doors of the coveted jobs that they seek. But as gatekeeping becomes the norm and experience remains a relative term, what does it mean to be experienced but still jobless?

Young workers or newcomers to the working world are often being split between these two important notions: experience… and getting paid. Experience is an integral part of the growth of industries; every member of the workforce must be able to have the technical training to accompany the passion and drive that they may already possess. However, the exploitation of free labor under the guise of experience propagates the conditions that oppression thrives in.

This is the truth that too many marginalized workers are now familiar with: the industries we know and love are being built on our free labor, our hunt for “experience,” and our naivety about our worth. When the idea of experience vs. the job becomes literal, we are stripped of our agency.

They prey on us.

Pile of multi-colored eggs.

Photo CC-BY John Loo, filtered.

This is nothing new, of course. But the introduction of technology has, like so many other things, shifted the culture of the workforce as a whole: we allow classist assumptions to fuel predatory and borderline unethical attitudes of industry-building; we make the theft of hard work for reward the norm.

It has now become entirely too easy to rely on plagiarism and theft of intellectual labor to make a case. New freelancers are almost immediately told to be wary of sites such as Huffington Post, who refuse to pay their contributions, while pieces like this 2011 TechCrunch op-ed stand by the notion that workers should be excited to even be considered: “The simple fact is that, even with Aol’s money in the bank, HuffPost [can’t] afford to pay even fifty dollars per post to each of the thousands of people who currently contribute for free. With that option off the table, the choice for the majority of contributors is to either write for free, and enjoy the self-promotional benefits that brings, or don’t write at all”.

Not to mention the turn that news in the age of Buzzfeed and Elite Daily has brought on: journalists now build their profits and portfolios by preying on the intellectual property of marginalized activists and curators, regularly writing entire pieces based on labor that goes uncompensated and generally uncredited. The accepting attitudes towards these practices shows us that while we flock to the creative arts and technology for the innovation that they bring, most of these industries were built by our unsuspecting hands, with little reward for the work that has been done.

The growth of internship culture has something to do with this. Those in higher education are familiar with the search for job opportunities with the flexibility they need to finish their degrees… but with this comes a significant cost. There is demand for student work, but many find they have little choice but to accept internships that offer experience-only rewards. This experience is crucial to increasing their real-market appeal to employers, but doesn’t carry the monetary compensation we all require for daily expenses and survival.

Free labor exploitation reaches further than just academic circles: other industries take advantage of the same model and the vulnerabilities of marginalized demographics. Critique of open source labor exploitation within tech has sprouted; even visual artists are not immune, as this piece on economic disparity within the visual art world explains. Frankly, almost every occupation has been lured into the trap of seeing exploitation as a shortcut to success.

Paintbrushes on a messy table.

Photo CC-BY Redmond, filtered.

In a lot of ways, free labor is a way for companies to work around the rise of awareness of social justice. They can use the guise of “experience” to weed out those who can afford to work for free; even as time passes, we find that this appeals to a small portion of the population and vehemently excludes (highly qualified, at that) people of color, disabled, queer and all otherwise marginalized individuals whose survival hinges disproportionately to the ability to be paid for the work that they produce.

The same groups that are excluded from the privilege of working for free are also the ones that contribute the most to this model. As we see with many social justice movements, the work of marginalized people creates the foundation that the industry forms itself after. We see this within the feminist movement; Black feminist and womanist academics such as Alice Walker wrote their experiences because the mainstream movement refused to do so. Crucial terminology such as intersectionality and Black feminist thought ideology would not exist had it not been for its Black women creators, Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. And as these few examples out of hundreds show, marginalized people create magnificent things, and our work contributes to far more value than we are given.

Diversity efforts as they stand now are not enough to begin solving the question of why the most valuable functions of the industry – the people who keep it going – are the ones being most exiled and punished. Instead, we must begin to shift our focus from filling quotas to rewarding the work that is already being done. Taking steps such as advocating for monetary rewards for labor produced, even at an intern level, is crucial for re-working this predatory system. We must also couple this with other strategies – having visible and vocal representation for subconscious exploitation of marginalized workers, as well as inputting diversity retention programs within tech and other industries must be in play for this exploitation to be reversed on a large scale. 

Close-up of a dollar coin.

Photo CC-BY frankieleon, filtered.

Most importantly, we must be open to creating a culture that welcomes and allows for those most victimized to have a voice that rises louder than their oppression. We must make it so that exploitation is not the heavy consequence of being a marginalized person within a passion-filled industry, but rather, work to celebrate and grow the culture to amplify the strengths that we give each other, and the culture as a whole.