Freelancing in the UK - why do almost 1 in 10 of us work for free?

70% of the UK’s creative freelancers were asked to work for free in 2016 and 1 in 10 said ‘yes please’.

9% of those asked (6.3% of all UK freelancers surveyed, equalling almost 289,000 in total according to Government figures on freelance workers**) said yes - completing at least one piece of free work, according to our research*

Our study reveals a worrying trend among businesses large and small who feel entitled to ask freelancers to work ‘for exposure’, ‘for the experience’ or on the promise of future work that - in most cases - rarely materialises. The other worrying trend is the high prevalence among younger freelancers, especially those under-25, of agreeing to work for free.

Study summary:

  • 70% of freelancers polled said they were asked to work for free at least once in 2016
    • Women are more likely to be asked to work for free than men. Of those who were asked to work for free, 55% identified as female, compared to 44% identified as male (sex disclosure was optional in the study).
  • 9% of those who were asked agreed to work for free at least once
    • Women are also more likely to say yes to working for free. Of those who said they did work for free, 59% identified as female, compared to 40% male.
  • The majority of UK freelancers who did work for free (80%) said they did it for the experience.
  • Photographers, graphic designers and copywriters are the most likely to be approached about working for free and are most likely to say yes.
  • Under-25s were almost twice as likely to work for free as over-25s.

What’s driving this?

Anecdotally, social media appears to be one of the biggest contributing factors to this issue, with many study participants saying they were approached on Twitter and Facebook by businesses asking to use their photographs, artwork and content in return for credit.

Companies including Toyota, Spotify, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and Dunkin’ Donuts can all be seen on Twitter asking to use images and content for free. (see below)

Other participants said they were asked to provide free work to demonstrate their capabilities to a potential client before they could be considered for paid work.

The promise of industry exposure was also used, either directly mentioned or in many cases implied through phrases such as ‘we’d love to share your work with our audience’. This was a common tactic used by big brands on social media.

Professions most likely to be asked to work for free

Profession

% asked to work for free in 2016

% of those asked who worked for free

Photographers

87%

16%

Graphic designers

85%

9%

Copywriters

83%

14%

Illustrators

81%

8%

Journalists

78%

6%

Video producers/editors

75%

7%

Front-end developers

74%

5%

Back-end developers

71%

4%

Average (includes professions not listed above)

70%

9%

Where are unpaid freelancers most likely to be based?

Cities with a large concentration of tech, media and creative industries appear to have a lower percentage of freelancers willing to work for free.

Freelancers in Manchester and London are the least likely to work for free and Manchester also has the lowest proportion of under-25s willing to work without pay.

City

% who were asked

% who said yes

% under 25 who said yes

London

63

8

17

Manchester

68

7

15

Brighton

68

8

18

Leeds

69

8

15

Sheffield

70

11

20

Birmingham

71

11

19

Newcastle

71

10

21

Glasgow

72

9

19

Liverpool

73

12

23

Belfast

75

9

20

AVERAGE

70

9.3

18.7

So if you’re a young, female freelance photographer in Liverpool, the chances are you’re being ripped off.

Charlotte Whelan, project manager at Approve.io, thinks freelancers should be discerning when considering working on-spec.

“There’s a difference between helping out a mate or offering your time for free to a good cause or charity and being exploited by a businesses that could - and should - be offering to pay for your talent. You wouldn’t walk into a hairdressers and ask for a free haircut on the promise that you’ll tell all your mates where you got your hair done.

“The lines get blurred with social media because the content and creations are already visible. But just because you’ve shared a photo, a drawing or a clever joke on Twitter doesn’t mean another company has the right to benefit from it without paying you.”


Freelancing in the UK - why do almost 1 in 10 of us work for free?


*About the study:

The above information is part of a wider study into the wellness and state of the UK’s creative ‘gig economy’. For the next few months, we’ll be sharing the findings from our research.

At the end of 2016, we conducted a poll of 1009 UK adults who have engaged in freelance work, either part time, full time or on a short-term contract, in the past 5 years.

For the purposes of the study, ‘freelancing’ was defined as having “engaged in full time, part time, temporary or contract work on a freelance basis or working freelance in addition to a permanent or temporary role.

**Based on the Government’s 2014 figure** of 4.6 million freelancers currently working in the UK, that adds up to an alarming 289,800 freelancers working without pay in the UK at some point throughout 2016.

‘Being asked to work for free’ was defined as:

“Being asked directly by a current client, being approached speculatively or via emails from recruitment agencies and websites targeted at freelancers.”

The poll was conducted between the dates of 4/11/2016 and 23/12/2016. At the end of the poll, participants were invited to provide any further information they deemed relevant. This was gathered in a free text field.

**http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lmac/self-employed-workers-in-the-uk/2014/rep-self-employed-workers-in-the-uk-2014.html