Fieldhands - Photo by Donna Sutton on FlickrMy political leanings are far to the left, and I am very passionate about workers’ right. I am disgusted when employers provide water for their farm workers because they legally have to, but then they intimidate those workers not to drink the water or take bathroom breaks. Farm workers die in the California heat every year due to exploitation by their employers. It’s despicable when employers lure foreign workers here with the promise of a good job, only to perform the bait and switch with low pay, no vacation, and simple theft of wages and tips. And don’t get me started about Wal-Mart’s “labor relations” – forcing employees to work off-the-clock, violating the FMLA, and not allowing their employees to take federally mandated breaks.

If one more person tells me that employment is voluntary and that if you don’t like the work you don’t have to do it – I’m going to scream.

Let’s take a look at the unemployment levels in the United States right now. The economy has claimed the jobs of highly skilled, intelligent, hard-working individuals everywhere.  Those workers are now fighting for unskilled jobs that they are quite overqualified for just to pay for food and shelter. What happens to the unskilled workers who need those jobs, too? That’s right – they’re forced into the even less desirable jobs. Unsavory employers take advantage of this, knowing that they can treat their employees poorly because the workers need the money too badly to leave the only job they could get.

The sad truth is that many people are ignorant of workers rights for a variety of reasons, whether it’s a lack of education or active spreading of disinformation by previous employers. It is not the employee’s fault when they are taken advantage of by their employers.

The Exploitation of Independent Contractors

Last week, I wrote ranted about Matt Cutts and his approval of using Amazon Mechanical Turk to hire exploit linkbait researchers. Some people claimed that I blew the video all out of proportion and accused me of manufacturing controversy for self-promotion. They were very wrong.

I worked as an independent contractor for many years. And it is absolutely unbelievable that I ever put up with some of the terms I accepted in exchange for my pay.

I was a mystery shopper for a few years – never as a full-time gig, but for extra money. I made $8 (total, not per hour) for spending a minimum of 30 minutes inside a fast food restaurant and filling out a 15 page multiple choice survey that included a narrative of the experience. I was not reimbursed for my gas or my driving time. By the time I’d submit the shopping survey, it had been an hour and a half… not to mention taking the time beforehand to memorize all the details I wasn’t allowed to write down during my evaluation. Not even minimum wage. I’d get invitations to perform shops that paid $5, even though I’d have to drive 30 minutes each way to get there! I didn’t take those, but someone did.

I worked as a Cha Cha guide for about a week. Having already worked as a quality rater, my search skills were fantastic. I was fast and efficient… and I still wasn’t making even $4 an hour. After I quit working for them, I read that they lowered the pay rates for their guides. Unbelievable.

And of course, there’s my stint as a Google Quality Rater. While I can’t tell you what I did for them, I can tell you how the job was structured. I worked for 12 months before I was forced to take a  three-month hiatus. I was then hired back to work another 12 months… never to work for them again. The pay wasn’t bad, at least I didn’t think so at the time. But the effective layoff in the middle of my two terms? Let me refer you to the Microsoft permatemps lawsuit.

Back in 1996, a class action lawsuit was brought against Microsoft by temporary workers who had been working for Microsoft for an extended period of time without being granted employee status. You see, employees earn benefits, while temps do not. These “permatemps” were denied the benefits they should have received because of the length of their service with the company. The court ruled in favor of the temps, saying they should have received the same benefits as the employees who were only different from them on paper.

So Google, in its multi-billion dollar wisdom, decided that they’d save money on benefits and potential lawsuits by precluding any chance of their temps to claim employee status. It always seemed a stupid decision to me, considering all of the confidential information covered by the Quality Rater NDA. I mean, I’ve never broken mine, but other disgruntled ex-temps certainly have, or a previous version of the Quality Rater Guidelines would never have been leaked.

I was not exploited by Google, but I was certainly unhappy about the fact that I couldn’t continue  working for them. As the end of my second term with them drew closer, I remember thinking I would happily sign whatever they wanted me to sign to keep working for them and be able to stay home with my son.

That is exactly the  sort of thing that unscrupulous employers prey on. Women who want to work at home so they can stay with their kids. People who don’t understand their rights as workers. People who don’t read contracts before they sign them. (Yeah, not a smart move, but not everyone out there is smart. And that’s not their fault.)

Companies hire independent contractors or freelancers to avoid paying benefits. I’m not talking about intermittent work that doesn’t require a dedicated employee – I’m talking about ongoing work that should constitute employment. Instead of paying their independent contractors a higher wage because of the money they save on benefits, some unscrupulous companies pay these workers less than they pay employees who perform similar tasks. Too often, the independent contractor won’t argue because they feel “lucky” to have the job in the first place.

Pennies - Photo by r-z on FlickrMany independent contractors work for modern day slave wages – and it’s still perfectly legal because there is no hourly wage to meet the federal minimum wage regulations. Take my experience with Cha Cha for example. Or those low-paying mystery shops. On sites like Elance, writers bid $2 to write 500 word articles because that appears to be the going rate. No one’s researching and writing 3.5 of those articles each hour to reach the $7.15/hour federal minimum wage.

Writers and other independent contractors may not even realize how poorly they’re being paid for their work. Consider mystery shopping – some companies tout making over $100 an hour because they offer $8 for a “quick retail evaluation.” Sure, if you only count your time in the store, your hourly wage goes up. If you count the time it took to read over your instructions, drive to and from the location, and complete your report, you’re coming up quite short in the hourly pay. And if this is only part time work, the actual hourly wage is rarely considered. It’s extra cash for them, so they don’t scrutinize it.

If someone is working for “extra cash” and not a primary source of income, that is not an excuse for companies to exploit them.

Aside from the “no one’s putting a gun to your head to keep a job” excuse, the “pocket money” argument comes in a close second for people who think it’s acceptable to rip off independent contractors. Or because people enjoy doing the work. Umm, I like my job, but you still need to pay me for writing for you. Thanks. You like your job? Would you do it for free? I thought not. (If you’re independently wealthy, this does not apply to you. The other 99% of us are not, and we have to work for a living.)

And then, of course, there’s the “it’s not illegal” argument. Well you know what? Maybe it should be illegal. Independent contracting is being used as a loophole to sidestep federal minimum wage laws.It’s despicable.

Yeah, so independent copywriters and online workers – freelancers – are not toiling away in the strawberry fields (forever) or locked in a sweatshop making hoodies until their fingers bleed. The working conditions are better, but the exploitation still exists. People deserve to earn a living wage. I can hardly believe that $7.15/hour is considered a fair wage these days, but how can anyone be expected to live on less? Food, shelter, electricity, health care… It’s freaking expensive.

How Can You Help Independent Contractors?

If you’re a company who utilizes freelancers or independent contractors, take a minute to look at how you’re paying them. Are you paying a nickel for someone to complete a 10 minute task on Amazon Mechanical Turk? How generous of you to pay 30 cents an hour. Would you work for that? Would you let your spouse or kids work for that? I thought not. I urge you to pay your independent contractors a living wage – I do.

I’m looking for an organization to work with to create an action alert that would allow people to click and send letters to their elected officials encouraging legislation to support fair wages for independent contractors. I’ll draft the letter pro bono. Get in touch. I’m not playing here. I’m not kicking up a fake controversy for the fun of it. I mean business.

52 thoughts on “The Exploitation of Independent Contractors”
  1. I agree with you, 100%. As an Independent Contractor, I have had days where I’ve averaged $60 an hour, with a killer client who gives a damn. Sadly, those days are over because the work was limited and temporary.

    Now, I’m forced to a terrible hourly wage, for the sake of the lump sum, for survival. On top of that, the structure of pay dates–many once a month–kills my ability to budget anything, which is completely necessary, especially with these economic conditions.

    Minimum wage where I live is still only $5.65, and I’m sorry, but daycare costs more than that around here, so, no matter what I do, I’m screwed. My wrists and back hurt at the end of every day… and I have to work or we’ll be on the street… because my husband can only do so much.

    I’ve got your back 200% on this venture! I’m muddling over how to pitch a childcare tax credit for those of us who work at home–because I would be a mother who would have to have a voucher to cover those costs if I worked outside the home. I’m doing the government a favor and still getting screwed.

  2. I only have time for a quick response but allow me to ask a few questions:

    Workers are fighting for their survival and the companies that provide work for them are exploiting them? Would it be better if the company in question didn’t provide the work at all?

    If I can only afford to pay a content writer $5 for an article, and I have several people ASKING for the work, are you really claiming that I am somehow damaging or harming the writer if I give them the job?

  3. Ben,

    They’re only asking for the work at the poor rate because of the climate that reinforces the idea that their time, efforts, and work are not valuable. It’s not necessarily that you are specifically trying to harm them, but yes, damage is being done.

  4. Great article Christina and totally agree. Having been a freelancer for several years now and going full-time with it this year I have seen the lowball figures for web design and SEO.

    I’ve seen someone want a 10 page flash website and their budget was only $100 and then later on would see someone posting a budget for $100 to get a #1 ranking BUT you only get paid ONCE you get that #1 ranking. Half of the time it’s offshore people that are bidding too.

    To demonstrate just how many of them are typically offshore people, I actually got granted an interview strictly b/c I was in the US even though my hourly wage was higher than their budget.

    re: Ben – They’re only asking for it because they know they can’t get the money they deserve for it.

  5. Yeah, baby. I’m with you if you want to change the world 🙂 When I started my freelance career I was working for about $2 an hour. Even what I once considered ‘good gigs’ have recently become somewhat less…uhm…reputable. I’ve decided I won’t work for pennies anymore and if it doesn’t pay at least $10 an hour it isn’t worth my time, and yeah..that’s still low.
    Dang it people. I have several college degrees and am working from home because I want to be with my son, not because I can’t get a job in the ‘real world’. A little respect and a fair wage isn’t too much to ask, is it? I’ll stop my rant now because you pretty much took care of it for me. Great post 🙂

  6. Casey,

    I remember looking for a programmer via Elance while working at my last job… and I couldn’t get anyone from the US to bid. They would’ve gotten the job by default, much like the interview you scored, even if they cost a little bit more.


    Yeah, it’s crazy, isn’t it? The work I described taking for less than minimum wage… and I have a Master’s degree. But too many businesses think that work at home moms are a great source of cheap labor, because too many think they have to work for less than they’re worth in order to have the freedom to stay home with their kids.

  7. The notion that you HAVE to do the work is ridiculous. You always have choices, it’s just a matter of picking which one you prefer.

    If I get laid off and have to take a job at McDonalds am I being exploited because I’m not getting paid what my time is worth? Not at all!

    I’ve seen low ball figures for SEO and Web Design as well, and you know what, I turn them down. If it came down to those kinds of jobs or losing my house, I’d take the job but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow exploiting me. I CHOSE to take the job.

    Your working conditions I assume are good (since that pretty much falls on you), you are being paid what you agreed upon. Unless the job somehow changes in mid-stream, the person doesn’t actually pay you, or they somehow deceive you, you’re not being exploited at all. You’re just bitching about not being paid more.

  8. Ben,

    There’s a difference with being paid crap wages because you work at McDonald’s… you’re being paid crap wages because that’s what the work is worth. It’s difference when it comes to content, SEO, graphic design, etc…. because they person doing the hiring knows that it’s worth more than $5 an hour. If you can’t afford more than that? Wait until you have a fair wage in your budget. You know yourself that you stand to make far more than $5 from the page you’re having a copywriter create for you; if the work is worth more than you can afford, you wait until you can afford it. An accountant or a plumber wouldn’t work for $5 an hour because the person hiring them didn’t have more in their budget. Why should writers, designers, and other online service providers?

  9. Christina,
    First of all, I’ve found that in almost every arena online including content, SEO, graphic design, etc you get what you pay for.

    So is that $5 article worth more? Maybe, but maybe not.

    You spent the entire article detailing this big sob story about how poor exploited workers are fighting for survival and now you’re suggesting that I DON’T offer them work?

    An accountant or a plumber wouldn’t work for $5 an hour and NO ONE is FORCING you to either.

    If you don’t want to make $5 an hour writing content or designing websites, then don’t take those jobs. If you need the money but $5 an hour isn’t enough for you, go get a minimum wage job. There’s really not a shortage of those.

    And last but not least, the fact that I stand to make more than $5 from the article has NOTHING to do with what is fair for me to pay for it. All employees are supposed to be creating a positive ROI for their employers.

    If you want to be paid more, make your work more valuable to your employers. If you provide value, you shouldn’t have a problem making what you deem to be a fair wage. If you can’t find anyone willing to pay you more than $5 per hour for your writing, then I have news for you:

    That’s what your time & writing is worth.

    (I should have just combined all these comments into a post and I’d be done by now lol. Also, although I say “you” several times I’m obviously not talking specifically about you personally. It’s a general you. Ok, I’m done for now, no really this time!)

  10. Ben, you’re an idiot, and you’re missing the point, perhaps deliberately. Working at McDonalds for minimum wage does not compare in any way to being forced by the market to perform a highly skilled creative task – writing – for far less than minimum wage.

    Personally, I refuse those jobs. My minimal pay scale is $25 an hour and up. Why? Because I have confidence in my ability to deliver. For that rate, my clients get well-researched, original content that needs very little editing. The only reason I’ll accept $25 an hour is because I am fairly new at this. I did the sweatshop thing for a couple of months..and I’ll never do it again (although I will continue to help friends in a pinch).

    For the record, Ben, if you want to pay pennies for writing, why bother to hire a writer at all? If you devalue the service that much, write it yourself for free. Plenty of people do that. They usually get exactly what they pay for. Anyone can write. Writing effectively is rare, and takes both talent and skill. Anyone can cook, but not everyone is Bobby Flay.

    It boggles my mind that, since the dawn of time, businesses have paid hundreds of dollars per month for an ad in the phone book…but balk at paying a reasonable amount for a much better service. Maybe they just don’t get it.

  11. I also want to go on record about not being able to afford it: bullshit! A lot of quality content can be had for a few hundred dollars a month. Any business that can’t afford it isn’t a business. The only question is whether they are willing to pay for it, and whether the writer/s they choose can deliver.

  12. Sheri, if I’m an idiot then you’re in that boat with me as your rant only made my point stronger.

    You don’t accept the “sweatshop” jobs. Good for you, no one HAS to accept them. If you think your time or your content is worth more, then by all means turn down the jobs. But if you accept those jobs, you are by no means being exploited.

    Also, Sheri, did you bother to read where I said you get what you pay for? I realize that there are drastically different levels in the quality of writing. But that’s not at all the point of this post.

    Christina is arguing that paying a contractor anything under minimum wage is exploiting them. I argue that if they’re willingly accepting the jobs, they’re not being exploited at all.

    And, by and large if you can’t get a business to understand the value of your service whether it’s quality writing, SEO, designing websites, or washing cars you’re either not actually providing as much value as you think, or you’re not doing a good enough job of selling (explaining) that value. In either case, it’s your fault, not the businesses.

  13. I think Ben is getting unfairly picked on because he walked into the lion’s den of writers. Surely, he’s not “an idiot”.

    I don’t for a second think that Christina is manufacturing any of this for attention or self-promotion. I know Christina. She’s not that way. And I totally agreed with her earlier post about how it was crap that Google would give a hearty recommendation to what amounts to cheap, low quality content, however, I’m not sure I buy into all of this.

    Unless you are severely disabled, more often than not, the only reason you can’t support yourself is because you choose not to and you choose to find excuses. To say that these low-paying type gigs, which I totally agree undervalue people’s time and energy, pray on women with children is a really dangerous statement to make. Especially because there’s no real way to back that up. Yes, it’s more often women who take these jobs because they even choose to stay home with their child or they have to do it, but that doesn’t mean they’re being targeted or profiled.

    If working for pennies is below you, don’t do it. These jobs exist because people take them. I don’t think the ‘mystery shopper’ gig is fair to label as “contract work”. I’d more accurately call it a “scam”. Writers don’t have to work for $5 an article. I’ve never been paid $5 for an article. Not when I was starting out and certainly not now. Yeah, in most cases, writers are treated like crap. That just means you have to look harder to find the companies that understand the value. Sheri noted she won’t write an article for less than $25. She set a bar for herself and my guess is she worked hard to find an audience for those articles. And she has.

    I don’t like when it’s suggested that people are forced into anything. I’ve never believed that’s the case. You can work at McDonalds microwaving pig fat while you’re at home busting your ass after hours learning HTML or whatever other skill you need to survive. That’s what starving people do. They take crap jobs while they’re working for themselves 7pm to 4am to create a better situation

    In college I was forced to register myself as being “disabled”. Legally, that’s my status. When I got out of college, I took a bunch of crap jobs while I looked for something better. I had a crap apartment and no free time, but I hustled and I found a better situation.

    Unless you are severely disabled, the only way you can be taken advantage of is if you allow it. Otherwise, you should be hustling to make something and improve your situation.

  14. This argument goes on SOOOO much.

    Folks, if you want to be paid more, take the higher paying jobs. Those people DO know what you work is worth and are willing to pay for it, but believe me MANY of the people offering crap pay don’t care if they get crap work, and I have to stick my neck out here and say that I have seen many freelancers submit crap work for good pay. It’s a two way street and since you are driving, you get to choose which direction to drive in.

    In a global marketplace you also have to factor in that what is a good wage in the US may not be a good wage elsewhere. (When I work for $15 per hour I often end up with half that in Sterling, and our living costs are higher.) By the same token if a UK buyer hires a US freelancer at the ‘crap’ wage of $12 per hour, is that US writer going to complain about pitiful wages? Many NUJ writers would complain about freelancers from overseas underbidding because of favourable exchange rates. See where I am going with this?

    The work place is changing and there are no easy answers on the horizon. At the end of the day all you can do is stand by your own choices of what work to take and leave others to make their own choices too.

  15. NO, I didn’t read “you get what you pay for” since we posted at the same time…and you’re still missing the point. I can afford to not work for peanuts. I’m a professional web designer and have additional formatting expertise to back up my writing ability. If I can’t find a writing gig that suits me in a given week, I can build someone a website. I prefer to write, but the job markets are flooded with jobs that pay absolute crap, making finding those gigs difficult and time consuming, and the competition for good contracts ridiculous.

    I get a lot of the contracts I submit bids on, and I am happy to explain to those that tell me I’m too expensive that you get what you pay for. When a business hires me, it gets free SEO/SEM advice, articles optimized for the web, and impeccable grammar. They also get someone with HTML, CSS, graphics, javascript, PHP, WordPress and Joomla experience. Plus a heavy-handed web presence – built-in audience.

    But I am hardly typical. Of course, many people who write for peanuts aren’t very good writers and many practice one-character-away-from-plagiarism style writing. Christina’s point is that this is a bad practice. Businesses should not solicit crap writing and writers should not accept crap pay. This is a call to action. Sweatshop writing should be rejected on both sides.

  16. Ben,

    If a worker isn’t aware that s/he is being exploited, that doesn’t mean the exploitation doesn’t exist. WAHMs are a prime example… Many women who happen to be fantastic writers work for a fraction of what their work is worth because they’ve been led to believe that their work has no value. They’re willingly accepting these crap job because they don’t know they are worth more. The crap work advertises that work is available; the good gigs generally aren’t advertised publicly for a variety of reasons. People only see the crap rates being paid to other people accepting crap jobs – they don’t see how much value their work really has. As I stated in the post above:

    The sad truth is that many people are ignorant of workers rights for a variety of reasons, whether it’s a lack of education or active spreading of disinformation by previous employers. It is not the employee’s fault when they are taken advantage of by their employers.

    It’s not right to take advantage of workers who are ignorant of their own worth.

  17. oh, and I take back the part about ben being an idiot….I do see your point, and it’s obvious that you’re not an idiot…I just think you’re not quite getting it.

  18. By the way, this is not solely about writers, designers, etc. It’s about ALL contract workers in a variety of industries. Those of us who are online here debating this are not the norm. There are many people who have never been online who don’t know a damn thing about the “global marketplace,” and they are afraid to “hustle for more money” because they are afraid of losing what they do have. And they’re being taken advantage of. I wrote about what I know – writing, mystery shopping, all that. But there is far more than I’m not aware of… I know it’s going on, though.

  19. Just for the record, here’s a typical job offer from

    Native English Speaking Writers ONLY!! (US,UK,AUS,CAN…)
    I can offer you a lot of ongoing work and reliable payment each week. Please check my ratings.
    I’m looking for fast and reliable content writers only.

    I expect:
    * Fast Delivery within 2-4 days max!
    * Error Free Articles!
    * 100% Original Work!

    Please don’t bid if you can’t write at least 3-4 articles a day for me. The more the better.

    This is ongoing work and I have lots of work! Most articles are between 300 and 500 words plus many rewrites. The work will involve quite a bit of product review writing.

    Quality: If you fill the article with gibberish and fluff and waste the readers time then we don’t accept the article.

    I can provide you with a steady flow of work but I expect some professionalism from my writers, means I always expect delivery within the deadlines and articles without errors.

    Your work shall always be 100% original, means no plagiarism, no cut and paste from other sources. Always your own words. I will check this with
    Payment per article:
    300+ words: $2.00
    400+ words: $3.00
    500+ words: $3.50
    750+ words: $5.00
    1,000+ words: $6.50

    my answer to this ad would be: not in this lifetime. thanks for playing, it’s been fun.

  20. When I first got started as a web copywriter, I took several low paying, less than minimum wage jobs to increase my portfolio and add writing credits to my name. I gave quality work for low pay because I saw it as an investment in my future. Overtime, I was able to demand a higher wage for my work.

    Was it ethical for those companies to take advantage of my situation? Not in my book. Was it legal? Absolutely, because I was a contractor. Did I know that I was being “exploited”? Sure, but I didn’t see any alternatives at the time.

    Right now members of Congress are looking to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to establish a base minimum wage for tipped employees. ( I think that similar revisions should be made for contractors. Will it increase the cost of doing business for some companies? Yes, but then these same companies should have been paying a fair wage to their contractors in the first place.

  21. I will admit that I haven’t read most of the comments here and further really don’t have time to leave a great comment myself! But i just wanted to chime in and say that when we talk about labor rights, its important to remember that this is a global economy that we work in, and therefore the same values and attitudes just don’t apply everywhere.

    In my opinion its easy, fair and just to tell other whining Americans to hustle and work harder. This is because we are in their same shoes and are aware of all of the awesome opportunities that America has.

    However, its not really our place to tell folks in other countries to “work harder” or “hustle more”. We are not in their environment and can’t apprehend their socioeconomic needs.

    If you were born in America you are one lucky person and automatically can speak from a certain level of privilege. Sure there are poor people in America, but they have a vast array of opportunities that people in other countries don’t have. If you are born in america and aren’t hustling and still remain poor, that’s your fault. But, we can apply that same standard to others that haven’t been given the same opportunities.

  22. Christina GREAT ARTICLE!

    As with anything there are definitely more than one side to look at. One thing to consider is that these employers offer these wages because there are people out there willing to do the work for those low amounts. It’s an endless cycle of who can do the most for the least amount.

    Employers should be considering their impact on society and the economy when they consent to the payment of these low fees. However some businesses, especially small businesses don’t always know what’s best for this industry or even themselves. Not to mention that they have to consider their own employees well being. A small business trying to succeed by implementing a complex shopping cart may not have a decent budget so they pay next to nothing in hopes of getting a quality product to avoid the risk of going under. It rarely works in their favor, however.

    I’ve been freelancing on the side (I’ve been employed full time since I graduated college) for nearly 10 years. I have been out bid on dozens of occasions where other providers will do any project for little or no money.

    I’ve seen this in other industries as well. My father is a plumber and his quality of work and costs usually can’t compete with many low budget companies.

    The one thing that seems to be true across any industry is that you get what you pay for. Many providers will charge less because they are either inexperienced or untalented.

    I tell my students on a regular basis that you have to charge a fair amount for your work. Evaluate yourself and charge your customer an equivalent amount to what end product they will receive. It’s ok to admit that you don’t have the same experience as other individuals and therefore aren’t going to charge the same amount.

    That being said it still drives me up a wall to see freelancers accepting mere hundreds for a complete web design & development. Clients begin to wonder why they would ever pay 2, 3, or 4 times this amount for a website when they can obviously pay less. It can also hurt the client because their original project guidelines aren’t met at this lower price but unfortunately they’ve already spent what little budget they have for an inferior product.

    I feel as industry leaders we all have the responsibility to set forth a standard on any service we provide. I can charge what I want for a side project because for me it has to be worth giving up my free time with my family to provide the service. I might feel differently if I was desperate for work. It’s hard to claim anything when you haven’t had to work in those shoes. However, I also have a strong portfolio and working experience to back my higher priced quotes.

    In the end it always falls on the shoulders of the client/employer to evaluate the value of your services or labor. It may be unfortunate but it’s the world we live in.

    I can’t say much for the farmers being pressured to drink less water but for the individuals working in this industry I’ll say to charge a fair amount for what you can provide. As you grow and provide better products you can legitimize a client spending more money on you. Even if it takes a little more work to sell your self! At the same time don’t undersell your self. The value of adding a project to your portfolio is not worth working at unreasonable wages. It’s important to respect your own strengths and not be taken advantage of.

    There will always be people answering those CraigsList ads to build a 100 page site for $200 bucks. We can only hope that clients/employers begin to realize the importance of choosing better quality service providers for every ones benefit including their own.

  23. Good points, Jesse! It’s not just the freelancers who get hurt in this. You’re right about small businesses not knowing what services are worth, and paying too little for a job that gets done poorly. There’s no way to know if someone with a lower bid is awesome but undervalues themselves or if they really and truly suck.

    It is about responsibility. Do you want to be responsible for contributing to fair and equitable pay for all of your workers, or do you want to be responsible for contributing to the devaluation of work until all you’ll ever get back is crap?

    Oversimplified, but there it is.

  24. I personally know 2 Wal-Mart employees, and both tell me it’s the best job they ever had. They love the company and the benefits. They work as cashiers for Wal-Mart for over 5 years. They are always raving about their benefits. So I would be very careful about spewing statements that are not based in fact, but merely editorial opinion. For an independent writer/contractor, I would be hesitant to hire you simply for you political agenda, which apparently seems to cloud your work.

  25. Maryszka,

    My husband worked for Wal-Mart for several years. He was a hard worker, competent and loyal – and they decided one day to force him out because they could hire new workers to replace him for less pay. They transferred him into a different, far lower paying position in the Layaway department, with fewer hours and far less prestige than his previous supervisory role. Then they downgraded him to door greeter before he finally found another job and quit. That is a fact, not an opinion.

    As for my client work? My clients are quite happy with what I write for them. Many of them are repeat customers. I have never let my political views get in the way of providing quality work to my clients. This is my personal blog, and I’m not going to lie about who I am and what I believe in. I would hope that people can respect that, although I may have a different viewpoint on a particular issue, I am still a professional, and I will always provide quality, professional work.

  26. @Maryszka Terpak

    With out a political agenda: I have a family member who works at Wal-Mart and loves it. I also know several people who say it’s one of the worst places to work. There is def truth to what Christina is saying, it’s an easy search to see actual in-depth accounts.

    With an agenda: Christina is a fantastic writer and researcher and anyone would be lucky to have her write for them.

  27. Have you forgotten businesses want to MAKE money?

    “For the record, Ben, if you want to pay pennies for writing, why bother to hire a writer at all?”

    “For the record, Nike, if you want to pay pennies for shoe manufacturing, why make them at all”

    “For the record, Toys R Us, if you want to pay pennies for toys to be manufactured in China, why make them at all”

  28. I’m sorry, Kevin, are you implying that international sweatshops are cool for Nike and Toys R Us to use because they are businesses trying to make money? I really hope that wasn’t your point.

  29. AMEN, sister! I agree with every single letter and space you typed here.

    Kevin doesn’t seem to be implying that – rather, maybe the implication is that the business models are set up so that execs make huge profits off the items we think we need to have in our lives. Meanwhile, some country’s population (and children) are being exploited so we can buy a $3 t-shirt.

    As for pseudo-employers requiring contractors to work during set hours – more people need to push back and let them know that by defining working hours, they are framing our relationship with them as an employer-employee relationship and now we’re expecting benefits. I turned down one particular gig because the crazy woman in charge wanted me in front of this machine from 9 to 9 EVERY DAY and with IM open so at the very second she decided to edit my work, I’d be right there for her to ask questions. When she called me several times during my VACATION, I ended the relationship. A client who can’t respect boundaries and demands your undivided attention is an employer, and a damned bad one.

  30. I do see your point, Christina…but this is the nature of business and the Corporate America we live in. From a bottom-line revenue standpoint, the goal of most businesses is to pay as little as possible for work that they believe is adequate – contract or otherwise.

    Expecting businesses to treat their employees or vendors better out of some subjective sense of right & wrong is an exercise in frustration and futility. As long as there are those willing to work for a fraction of what others are for SEEMINGLY the same work, there will be businesses lining up to pay those wages.

    It is the responsibility of the individual to determine their own worth. If a person is being exploited it is because they have put themselves in a position to be exploited. If you don’t want to get paid $5 to write an article, don’t. Go to McDonald’s and earn $5 an hour flipping burgers…resign yourself to being a cashier at the gas station down the street…go stock shelves at your grocery store. Don’t devalue the work you love by charging less than you deserve for doing it.

    If unemployment rates and economic circumstances make working for $5 an hour your reality, you can decide to do work that is commensurate with the pay. We all have that choice. We all have to take responsibility for the roles we play in this game. Those who accept the slave wages are as responsible for the situation as the businesses who pay them.

    6 months ago I walked away from the corporate world…hoping never to return. I grew tired of being shoved up the ladder of huge companies who care about little more than bottom line revenue. I have spent my adult life listening to and witnessing women being paid less than men for the same job. I have never been one of them. Why? Because I refused.

    I didn’t get paid less than my male contemporaries because I truly believed my value to an employer was on par with anyone. My work reflected that and I demanded to be paid accordingly. That sense of worth still holds true today…which is why I don’t work for $5 an hour.

    Anyone who accepts a lower wage – regardless of the reason or their motivation – does so, in part, because they are willing to accept it. Not being aware of being exploited is a no excuse, nor does it warrant pity. Many people remain blissfully content in their own ignorance. That is their choice and it is the psychological & economic equivalent to natural selection.

    Why do some charge $25…$100…$250 per hour for their work and others $5 per hour? If a person’s time and work are worth $25 per hour, yet they are willing to accept $5 an hour to do it…who is really to blame?

    Whether out of ignorance or pure desperation, the person accepting $5 for a job that should cost $100 sets the perceived value precedent for the work and the damage has been done. Once a company pays $5 for something, what are the chances they’ll ever see a necessity to pay $100?

  31. @Alysson

    I agree with everything you are saying as it applies to most places in America. But Turk and other services rely on foreign labor to capitalize on cheap wages.

    I also agree that in a corporate environment the bottom line is the most important. But I think whats important about Christina’s post is that it speaks to those that don’t work in a corporate environment. Most of us own our own business and because of that we have the ability to make decisions over how we operate in a global market place. We do have the choice to hire who we want and not skimp on wages.

  32. I’m implying that businesses want to make money, and will pay low wages to do so.

    Also, people are happy to work for the wages they get paid in other countries.

    Yes, it is unfair that there are people who do get screwed, but that’s business, perhaps they’re in the wrong field and should choose another career path.

    On the other hand, Americans need to quit looking for handouts, quit acting so spoiled and use some elbow grease and hustle a little more =)

  33. Yes, Joe…but as you know, even those of us who own our own businesses and have the ability to make decisions about how we operate are not removed from the corporate environment if we still take on clients. It’s just on a different type of relationship. And we can tell the decision makers within individual corporate structures to suck it when their expectations are utterly ludicrous based on what they’re willing to invest. 🙂

  34. “…Your work shall always be 100% original, means no plagiarism, no cut and paste from other sources. Always your own words. I will check this with
    Payment per article:
    300+ words: $2.00
    400+ words: $3.00
    500+ words: $3.50
    750+ words: $5.00
    1,000+ words: $6.50

    my answer to this ad would be: not in this lifetime. thanks for playing, it’s been fun…”

    DITTO! Anyone who agrees to such utter nonsense and lunacy gets exactly what they deserve. As does the company. Wow. You’d have to be a complete idiot. I’d hope anyone capable of stringing together two complete sentences would run screaming from this “opportunity”.

  35. One thing that’s missing from this conversation (at least as it applies to writing, web development, etc.) is that in most cases, the end client’s understanding of “you get what you pay for” is limited. They seldom have the education or training to discern the difference in quality a seasoned professional brings to the table. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given a draft user manual written by a programmer, engineer or intern that the client was wholly satisfied with and then I’ve had to explain to the client why it was a bloody awful disaster from the perspective of a seasoned technical writer. They don’t know what they don’t know and in most cases, they’re only driven by the question of how many dollars they have to spend to be able to check that box on the project plan that says *Documentation*. Their standards (if they’re even aware of the concept of standards for documentation) are far below mine and those of other professionals in the field. We can try our best to educate them about those standards, but in the end they’re most often driven by the bottom line.

  36. Kevin, it’s interesting that you would choose outsourced toys as an example, because it perfectly illustrates “you get what you pay for” . Wonder how expensive that toy recall was…and how many children were poisoned by lead painted toys before the recall went into effect. Lead poisoning can be a bit tricky. The effects may not be apparent for years to come.

    So how far do you decide to support this opinion that cheap labor/goods is acceptable?

  37. I’ve got to agree 150% with Ben.
    ( Here goes the record for longest… response… ever… 😀 )

    More to the point, this is a classic case of Capitalism in its purest form; Market conditions and competition setting the pricing standard for the industry. When you have a set controlled wage that everyone makes, well, that’s the opposite of Capitalism and let’s just say that’s called something else entirely…

    Now when it comes to Ben and his article, if he can only pay $5.00, then he can only pay $5.00. He is taking a chance that the market will or will not bare that price. Fortunately for him the market does provide a myriad of options that will fit within his budgetary means. He is, however, taking a risk, be it a calculated risk that the quality of the work will not be to certain standards. However, the calculated portion of that risk is that he is paying $5.00 so while he may not get $100 per article work, if the market conditions allow it, he very well could.

    Now I believe there is a slight caveat in SEO and graphic design work that differs itself from writing. You can get a lit major in high school or college to write really inexpensive (notice the word “cheap” was not used) articles for your website that are informative. While the same for SEO and graphic design, to some degree, cannot be said. Will they garner thousands of links for link bait? Maybe, maybe not, but either way $5.00 is all that he can afford.

    Now in order for Ben to continue the growth of his company, he needs to best allocate funds and/or time. To Ben his time is best suited in other areas in which to grow his company. So the notion that he should drop other aspects of growth in order to write his own article when there are plenty of, at the very least, semi qualified individuals ready to create his articles for him all day long at $5.00, is, well, let’s just say that’s not the best plan of action for any business owner. Being counterproductive is still being counterproductive.

    While I realize that there are a lot of freelance jobs out there that pay below what many in the US would ever accept, you have to realize $5.00 offshore, especially depending on the country, is a tremendous amount of money. For someone in the Philippines, for example, to write 8 articles a day at Ben’s $5.00 a piece that’s $40 a day multiplied by let’s say 25 days. $1,000 a month.

    Over there that would get you one of the nicest apartments OR houses in Manilla, pay for groceries, car, phone, internet, etc.. and you would still have plenty of money left over to go out, save, live rather nicely actually. Much better than most with the Philippines.

    (For those of you checking $1k = 48,537.98 PHP – Average Rental? 5,500PHP, high end/house? 20k php – This puts them in probably the upper 10% of the country. Sounds real exploited. I wish I could be in the upper 10% of my country 😀 )

    Now outsourcing gets into a whole other ball of wax that I probably, beyond what I just wrote, really don’t want to get into the ethics of as Im simply pointing out the economics of it all.

    But it really all comes down to a really simple concept, and again just as Capitalistic…

    If you don’t like the pay that’s being offered, walk away, simple as that. If enough people walk away what ends up happening? The market adapts. Wages go up based upon demand. Again, simple economics, supply and demand works within the workforce as well as within brokered commodities.

    And don’t get me started on Wal-Mart 😛

  38. James, that’s kind of Christina’s point -and mine. To encourage writers to walk away and educate business owners about why quality is more valuable in the long run than hiring the lowest bidder.

    I find myself wondering when conservatives began advocating foreign outsourcing. The direction some of you are taking is very interesting. You’re 100% right that Americans cannot compete on a wage level with many foreign countries because we cannot live on $5.00 an hour. (which isn’t really what we’re talking about here…on average, we’re talking about less. In some cases, a great deal less.)

    Fortunately, the English language is difficult and people who speak it as a second language rarely get the nuances of grammatical structure exactly right. Hiring cheap often results in a website that looks like it’s written in Engrish.

    I visited the website of the last person who told me I was too expensive for their budget. The home page was riddled with grammatical errors. I would have told him…if I really cared.

    An unfortunate truth is that far too large a percentage of the population is so poorly educated that they wouldn’t have the ability to spot even the most glaring errors. However, statistically, the people with the most money to spend are usually well educated. I’m just sayin.

  39. Sheri,

    I don’t necessarily endorse offshore outsourcing and I certainly can’t speak for all conservatives, but I do endorse a free market system and I endorse freelancing. The thing about freelancing though is that most of the time a business will go to a freelancer, nine times out of ten, to save money. Not because they feel they can get a better product.

    I can also relate that most business owners that are looking for services in SEO, graphic design and content creation, seem to have absolutely NO CONCEPT whatsoever of value. I’ve priced clients out before that if they would gain one client from our SEO services, ONE, that they would have made their money back plus some. The keyword research along with their current lead to conversion metrics suggested that we would have probably ended up bringing them approximately 20-30 new clients per month… They passed in lieu of using an offshore company. I shrugged it off because I know I provide a a higher value service and its priced accordingly. I also know that Im going to go through a lot of those business owners to get to the ones that recognize knowledge and value.

    Coincidentally that company paid about 15% less than the price I gave them and the keywords that they had some ranking for dropped like a stone after the offshore company did their thing. I take a slight devious satisfaction in watching that happen almost every single time. 😀 I find as long as you stay cordial and professional, once they do get dinged, or see the bad quality, it’s a good chance they will come back to use you to fix the problem or just to get quality services. I’ve gained clients that way. Then you just get to charge them more 😀

    Also one thing that I think should be noted is that just because you have money doesn’t mean you should spend it. Or more to the point you shouldn’t spend it frivolously. A good business owner knows how to invest into his/her company wisely and find the best possible situation. That’s not to say the least expensive. In fact if the most expensive is the best possible solution than that should be the solution that should be chosen, if possible.

    All in all the cat is out of the bag on offshore outsourcing and as the economy keeps getting worse, which it will continue to do for quite some time now, offshore outsourcing is going to become a much larger piece of the pie.

    I will cover myself here and say that I always look for US freelancers first. 🙂 Our only backup Flash guy is in Chicago for example. I feel that if it’s within your means and your budget, or you can squeeze just a bit more into that budget, than I say, especially now and going forward, try to give Americans the work. We ARE transferring wealth out of this country at a frightening pace when you consider everything from oil to freelancers so keeping it here in the country, when financially feasible, should always be the goal.

    There’s a 500 word article right there and all it cost was two cents on a soap box 😉

  40. James, I don’t consider paying a decent wage for quality equals spending frivolously.

    Marketing has changed, and companies that cheap out and hire the lowest bidder cheapen their image and miss the traffic benefit of SEO/SEM knowledge. Companies that figure out how to adapt to the market will survive. That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it?

    Companies will often spend more money on a logo shirt than on the text that will attempt to sell their image to the world. Sad.

  41. As a professional writer, I’m nauseated when I see gigs listed for $2.00 an article. That type of pay scale explains why you see such utterly bad writing on these content-rich sites. I’m also an interior designer, and see bids on design jobs in the US by people in India, offering to do the work for $5.00 an hour.

    Though it makes me angry that business owners (no, actually internet marketers) exploit people this way and destroy the level of writing in the Country, I have to stand by the saying “you get what you pay for.” (otherwise, I’ll be slamming my head against the keyboard every morning.)

  42. The Exploitation of Independent Contractors…

    A discussion of how employers exploit freelancers and independent contractors, urging action by both businesses and legislators. If you do freelance work, you may want to take a look to see if you’re being taken advantage of….

  43. I found this discussion fascinating, and disturbing. Ben, you really don’t get it. Do you harm someone by paying them less than minimum wage? Does someone who hires a child prostitute harm them? Or if you hired someone to do a job where they had a 10% risk of losing their hand, would this be harming them? Hiring someone under min wage undercuts others and the law itself – if you can’t afford to pay the min wage, then you should not hire.

    But what if that person is in Guatamala, and the min wage is $2 / day? Or in Cambodia and less? Or what if the person doing the job is locked in a basement room in Manila, in some digital sweatshop? Well, not your concern, right? After all, that is not what the profile says.

    Of course, the person who said “it was one thing to lowball someone doing a McDonalds job, but a contractor would know a tech, graphics design or other ‘skilled’ job is worth much more” is also a bit dim. They don’t get it – this changes everything. The McDonalds job – heating the burger, serving it, has to be done right here at home, can’t be outsourced, and therefore might actually be worth more! That is turning things on its head, eh?

    The implications, dangers, potential negative impacts locally on workers losing their jobs, and those doing the work overseas, are profound. And irreversible, I would guess. Freelancing over the internet is coming big time, is here already, and any job that can be outsourced will be, particularly if the outsourcee will do the work at a tenth the cost and possibly higher quality. Don’t like that? Well, get used to it. And skill up – in something that is hard to send over a wire.

  44. Are you still taking posts? I landed on this page, after searching for comments by other professional contract employees experiences working for Nike.
    I had a horrendous experience, which even as I’m writing now, evokes some extremely strong emotions. Its pretty fresh, and still raw. The treatment was appalling, and it will take a long time to rally (both me, and by extension, my family)
    This is a very old thread. Here we are in 2015, in a world where companies do not typically hire direct anymore, and so many new ways exist to discriminate. I have found myself extremely shocked by the questions that were presented to me to answer, on the last 3 employment forms I just filled out.
    My prevailing thoughts have been, “Really? They can ASK this, and if I don’t answer, the employment application is rejected?”
    I’ve found myself toggling between Federal employment website info, and comparing the questions on these forms. “Really”? You can ask me this?
    Another thought that I have had frequently is, “This must be the kind of employer actions that inspired some to form unions, in the last century”.
    I can play devil’s advocate. There are always two sides to every story. But the playing field is not equal. And as an IT professional, I am finding myself increasingly competing with the ‘entire continent of India’, or so it seems. How can that be?
    Why am I competing in THIS country, with workers in India for employment in THIS country? Why was Barack Obama on campus (Nike, the source of my current ‘raw feelings’) pleading his case for a ‘NAFTA’ like arrangement, meaning…even MORE jobs go overseas?
    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what comes next. All of our kids in college, carrying over a trillion $$$’s of college debt, are not going to be able to pay that money back, WHY? Because they will not be able to find employment in this country, that will allow them to pay that debt (trillion +) back!
    Also, who will be able to afford BUYING the products that we currently buy in this country overseas?
    Doesn’t that come full circle eventually? The whole world economy feels like a large Ponzi scheme, which will bite EVERYONE, in the end.
    Just thoughts.

  45. Excellent post. That fact that employers come to embrace a sociopathic mindset once they have secured enough money for themselves is despicable. But, knowledge is power, and there are many employees who are waking up and gaining knowledge about what their rights are.

  46. I’m a seamstress and was just contracted with a company, who set rates per job, at a 30/70 ratio. I get 30% of what they charge customers. I also provide the entire work space and all supplies, not included in my cut. Turns out I’m averaging about $4/hr of work, not including time, gas, and supplies I purchase to complete projects. I have 2 very young children and thought this would be beneficial. Sounds a lot like the article, stay at home moms being preyed on. Not to mention I live in the most expensive area of the continental USA. I get paid barely anything, but probably am putting in more time and effort than any of them to complete the tailoring projects.

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