Are we all working for free?

70 per cent of the UK's growing ranks of freelance workers have been asked to work for free. But experts suggest we all are.

By Felicity Hannah
Wednesday 25 January 2017 11:03
Don't log off: Staying connected to work email after hours can damage your family's health.
Don't log off: Staying connected to work email after hours can damage your family's health.

Internships, overtime, emails. Working for free is akin to taking a pay cut, yet huge numbers of us accept it without complaint.

The concept of working above and beyond our basic paid-for hours has subtly wormed its way into our office culture so that now many of us believe it is part and parcel of any white-collar job.

Don't think that includes you? Guess again.

Unpaid overtime

Workers in the UK gave their employers £31.5 billion-worth of unpaid overtime over a single year, according to the TUC. It analysed official statistics and found that in 2015 more than 5 million people put in an extra 7.7 hours a week in unpaid overtime.

Had they been paid for those hours it would have added up to £6,114 a year to their pay slips, assuming they were on the average wage. Public sector staff were among the most prolific free workers, contributing £10.8 billion in unpaid overtime, but teachers and education professionals did the most free hours overall – at a startling average of 11.9 unpaid hours a week.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We do not want to turn Britain into a nation of clock watchers. Few people mind putting in extra effort from time to time when it is needed, but it is too easy for extra time to be taken for granted and expected day in day out.”


There are a huge number of freelance workers in the UK – and some of them are being taken for a ride by non-paying customers. IPSE, a membership organisation for freelancers, says there are 4.6 million self-employed professionals in the UK, with self-employed workers making up 15 per cent of the country’s workforce.

Yet there are some unscrupulous companies who appear to take the ‘free’ in freelancer a little too literally. Research by, a new service that allows freelancers to collaborate more easily with their clients, shows that 70 per cent of the UK’s freelancers were asked to work for free at least once in 2016.

Of those, just under one in 10 agreed to do so at least once. Under-25s were almost twice as likely to work for free as over-25s, the research found.

Sir Cary Cooper CBE, professor of organisational psychology & health at the University of Manchester, says this is a no-win situation for freelancers: “I think this is a serious problem. It’s natural for freelancers to look to build relationships with potential clients, and working on-spec is tempting when the client dangles the carrot of future commissions.

“But it rarely works out the way the freelancer expects and it can lead to a broad lowering of demand for experienced professionals.

“Some businesses, especially those in glamorous or competitive industries, do suffer with a sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that having their name on your portfolio is payment enough for a young, inexperienced freelancer.”

Out-of-office emails

Even when we are not actively working overtime, more and more people admit struggling to switch off from work and it has become normal for many to check and respond to emails out of office hours.

However, a new law has been unveiled in France that gives employees the legal right to avoid work emails outside of working hours.

That kind of ruling could prove popular, with new research from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania suggesting that the expectation for employees to be always connected can damage their work/family balance and causes similar stress levels to having a high workload.

“Organisational expectations can steal employee resources even when actual time is not required because employees cannot fully separate from work,” concluded the academics.

Unpaid internships

This week an advert for an internship went viral. It appeared to be from a new charity called ‘Fight Against Slavery’ and invited applications for an unpaid intern, sparking outrage and widespread mockery.

However, it did once again draw attention to the issue of unpaid internships which, within some industries, have become all-but necessary for anyone hoping to gain paid work. Official estimates suggest that at any one time there are around 70,000 interns at work in the UK, of which around a third are unpaid.

This is not just bad for the workers themselves, it’s been argued that this gives candidates with wealthy families a distinct advantage as their poorer peers can’t afford to work for nothing.

At the end of last year the government blocked draft legislation that sought to guarantee people were paid the minimum wage for workplace internships.

Travelling to work

If your commute feels like time wasted in the worst possible way then there potentially some good news. A recent ruling from the European Court of Justice has declared that time taken up by travelling to and from work at the beginning and end of a day should be counted as working time under the law, meaning employees should get paid.

Sadly, that ruling only covers staff who do not have a fixed office base, so most workers can’t get paid for their commute just yet.

What can you do?

If you believe your employer is expecting more from you than they are paying for then you do have rights, even if it doesn’t seem like it when you are all vying to be last in the office.

However, having rights doesn’t mean it’s always okay to clock-watch. Danielle Ayres, employment solicitor at Gorvins Solicitors, explains: “If the hours of work within a contract are set in stone ie 9.00am – 5.00pm, Monday to Friday and there is no mention of overtime then an employee can take a stand and refuse to work the hours being asked, however, it is usual for terms obliging employees to work additional hours ‘when necessary’ or ‘to properly perform their job’ to be included. Unfortunately, this means that more often than not employees will work overtime for no pay and it is expected in most jobs.”

However, if an employee believes their employer is being unreasonable then they should be able to challenge them without fear of consequences such as dismissal.

“Employees should also consider whether their employer would be breaching certain legislation in relation to working time in asking them to work the additional hours, for example, would the employee be working more than 48-hours per week, when averaged out (when they have not given consent to do so), and are they making sure the employee is taking adequate breaks and having enough rest in between shifts?” she continues.

“Furthermore, asking staff to work unpaid overtime may mean the employer is falling short on their obligation to pay national minimum/living wage, if they break down how much they are paid over the hours they work. If this is the case an employer would have to pay any shortfall.”

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