How to avoid being exploited as a freelancer

by Kayla Matthews

Starting out in the freelance world, it’s hard to spot the dangers of exploitation. In the name of exposure and growth, new freelancers often trivialize their worth. It’s all too easy to waste your time or naively lend your skills and end up with nothing to show for it.

That’s what happened when I first began freelance writing. I was transitioning from college to the workplace, and I was willing to do favors for friends and skimp on my rate. I had no idea the toxic effect that exploitation could have on my career.

Here are four ways that you can identify exploitation in freelancing and opt for honest, rewarding gigs instead.

1. Ask Questions

I learned this lesson the hard way. A while back, editors were constantly requesting pieces from me, but their guidelines were never clear enough for me to know exactly what they wanted.

I was so excited to be reached out to that I’d take the opportunity without question. Then, when I provided the finished piece, they would refuse it because they had another approach in mind.

Without explicit details, my efforts were going to waste. Even if I were to salvage it, it would require more work—I’d have to get out there and try to sell it to another publication.

If a freelance request is vague, don’t assume that means the company will take anything you give them. Follow up with questions until you reach a definitive understanding of their expectations. In the long-run, you’ll save yourself from handing out your well-crafted work in exchange for nothing.

2. Value Your Time

I’m vocal with how much time I have to write. I didn’t always communicate my availability in such a straightforward way. But once upon a time, a freelance designer I met first showed me what a commodity each minute was, so I adjusted my priorities.

I have her to thank for showing me the value of my time. Now, when I’m on vacation, I don’t feel pressure to write. Even if I get a request, I’m not going to waste my downtime. My time is more valuable than constantly working to appease editors. I know now what I can and can’t accomplish in my packed schedule.

Several factors can cause you to lose precious time in freelancing. Maybe a client is paying you next to nothing for long stretches of work, but you don’t have an alternative because you’ve hit a dry spell. When freelancers sacrifice their time because there’s a lag in their workflow, it’s a substantial setback.

As a freelancer, you have a niche in your field that you’d like to dedicate your time to. But to pay the bills, you might accept work you’d rather pass on. Despite your preferences, you end up with projects that don’t interest you or help you move forward.

A friend of mine, Nate, is a freelance photographer. He has told me about people who try to get “a few quick shots” from him for free, or for a fraction of his usual rate. It’s only 20 minutes—what’s the harm? But his photography is his livelihood, so the harm can be serious.

You have control over your fees and your schedule, so don’t settle by relinquishing your work hours or your time off. Stop accepting ongoing underpayment for producing high-quality work. Coworking spaces and networking can help you share work opportunities that appeal to others in your field.

3. Reach a Written Agreement

It’s likely you’ve done projects for free, whether willingly or unwillingly. According to a study of four Southeast Asia markets by PayPal, 58 percent of freelancers have experienced not being paid. Receiving no compensation for your work is one of the biggest risks of freelance work.

Once, I used a website that listed freelance gigs, and they requested my services. I wrote the piece for them, but they didn’t accept it—plus, I got zero feedback, no compensation, and no explanation for why it didn’t measure up.

At the time, I didn’t know what kind of reputation the website had, but it turned out to be questionable. They had the right to deny my work without explanation because we didn’t sign a written contract.

Without a written agreement and a sense of trust, there’s no reason to accept and perform the work as a freelancer. A written agreement can protect you from missing out on the payment you deserve.

4. Choose the Right Clients

I’ve had a few instances when a website has published my work, but didn’t give me credit for writing it. When others steal from you, it’s frustrating to say the least. Why would you put your time and thoughts into a project when you aren’t going to be acknowledged?

Be wary of who you hand your work over to. Trustworthy partnerships mean there’s a better chance your clients won’t fail to pay or fail to give you credit.

Even without a steady flow of clients, even when you’re getting desperate, it’s still worthwhile to be selective about who you do business with so you can thrive in a flexible career.

Don’t let others take advantage of you or your work. Watch for warning signs of exploitation, especially in the beginning. Protect yourself by asking questions, getting it in writing, and being selective. And, above all, learn to value your work. As a freelancer, your skills, time and products are your assets. You need to guard them.

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Miguel Constantin Montes.

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