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July 14, 2021

'Will work for free' becoming gospel of the recession

By Jason Buckland, Sympatico / MSN Finance

Maybe British Airways was onto something.

If you recall correctly, many scoffed when the gasping airline did the unthinkable last month by asking its 40,000 staff to work for free as the company continued to reel from the downturn.

But now, according to Reuters, there may some weight to this whole Work For Free thing, only experts can’t decide whether it’s a sign of “dedication or desperation.”

It may not surprise you to know many of the growing unemployed have been offering their services to companies pro bono, a trend designed to boost job seekers’ experience and keep their resumes fresh.

New scepticism to the “Will Work for Free” mantra has been revealed, however, that questions the legality of the movement and wonders if many businesses have been taking advantage of their newfound unpaid employees.

Ross Eisenbrey, VP of the Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, tells Reuters volunteer work is okay for non-profit groups, but may be unlawful if performed at a commercial company.

“It’s not just a bad idea, it’s illegal,” he says. “The law says (companies) may not suffer or permit employees to work for less than the minimum wage.

“The more desperate people get, they will do things like this to try and make themselves more appealing to an employer. The short-term prospects for most of the unemployed are very bad. They aren’t going to be made much better by working off the books or working for nothing.”

Yet this is where the issue becomes murky. If an employee is able to put some reputable contacts and experience on a resume in exchange for a few hours of free work each week, is that really still being taken advantage of?

Unionized companies would, of course, argue this is a terrible way to undervalue existing employees and put them at risk, and they’re right. But, in these times, is it really still fair to deny the unemployed a chance to prove their worth and gain some profile for future job applications?

When you consider that the recession-spurred trend of working for free is a great way for potential employees to get in on the talent pipeline companies could build to tap when the economy recovers, the answer sure doesn’t appear so clear-cut anymore.



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

James HaversJames Havers

James is the senior editor of MSN Money living in Toronto. He has worked for the Nikkei Shimbun (Tokyo),,, Canadian Business and other publications. Havers turned to journalism after teaching overseas.

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...