No, do not work for free. Don’t be that filthy schmuck

Again and again I come across people in positions of great influence advising job seekers to work for free: Megan McArdle, Thought Catalog writers, a Time Magazine blog post with comments disabled. I hate to imagine how much of the same advice I could find if I actually searched for it, instead of happening upon it in fruitless searches for something edifying and reputable.

Advising the unemployed to work for free is beyond the pale. The advice in question is not tailored to encourage lawyers to do pro bono work, or doctors and nurses to do see charity patients or go on medical mission trips. It is not tailored to encourage people to volunteer at soup kitchens or with Habitat for Humanity, or to tutor or mentor at-risk youth from indigent families. It is not even about pitching in around the house and reaching out to harried relatives instead of being a freeloader, a theme that surfaces quite often in generation war clickbait troll jobs. All of these specifics are perfectly within the capacity of a normally literate adult to spell out with no ambiguity. If these career development advice pieces had been written by people with a functioning set of ethics, they’d specify some form of legitimate charitable work. Instead, they encourage working for free for the sake of working for free, with an emphasis on the career advancement of the volunteer, not the social good of the volunteer work in question.

This isn’t noble work for ignoble purposes, as volunteer work can become in the hands of social climbers who have been steeped in bourgeois-left solipsism; it’s outright ignoble. It makes no distinction between legitimate charity and furnishing for-profit businesses with unpaid scab labor. It’s grotesquely unethical. If nothing else, it gives unscrupulous bosses opportunities to divert work away from decent paid employees who need the hours to cutthroats who probably don’t.

Does Megan McArdle give a shit about that? I doubt it. There is something seriously wrong with that woman, intellectually and morally. The asshat I came across at Time shamelessly enthused about how the boss agreeing to a work-for-free offer has nothing to lose because, if all else fails, he’ll get free work out of the deal. And why would anyone with editorial authority at Time give any thought to the impropriety of pushing job seekers into a Red Queen’s Race into ever-worsening terms of recruitment? They’re a bunch of daft motherfuckers in the best of circumstances, not a crowd to turn to for critical thought. Besides, corporations benefiting from unpaid scab labor in the form of bogus “internships” buy advertising from Time, and the unemployed don’t. Shit, Time probably keeps its own stable of “interns” as a source of compliant scab labor.

I’ve done unpaid work under shady circumstances, but at least I’m not proud of it, and at least I have the decency not to try to drag others down into the same mess. I guess I’ll never write for Time. 

Unpaid labor of this sort is already generally illegal in the United States. What American government needs to start doing, at all levels, is making it painful for employers. There need to be consequences for that shit. Disgruntled interns hired under illegal circumstances suing their bosses for back wages is a good start, too. Maybe leadership from below can inspire leadership from above.

Please give me some hope that we aren’t too neutered and servile as a people to demand pay in exchange for our work.


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