Ten years ago I took part in an initiative called Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit (the Union For Contemporary Art). It was an art workers' movement that formulated unpaid labour as the pressing problem in the art field. Our critical reaction bore fruit and today there is a fairly strong consensus on the art practice being labour and that it should be recognised and remunerated as such. Most of the art institutions are aiming at paying fees to their collaborating partners, even though the rates are low. One can no longer hear directors and curators stating the inevitability of unpaid labour for artists. However, unpaid labour has not entirely disappeared from the culture field. Sometimes it is completely Ok to work without fee, because all of the collaborations do not need to be monetised. Contributing to society is part of being human and there is no obligation to ask money for every single action. How to differentiate between the circumstances when to agree to unpaid labour and when to refuse it?

I follow one simple principle while making my decisions. If the person making the proposal is getting paid for their work, my answer will always be no. I do not wish to support cultural managers who earn their income by delegating the unpaid labour to someone else. If the person making the proposal is also working for free, then it is worth considering. Do I have time to accept the proposal? Does the proposal seem interesting and meaningful? For example:

In 2019 I received an invitation to take part in a conference at Tallinn Music Week. There was no word about money in the proposal. When I asked about it, the answer was that the payment was in the form of the festival pass, worth 55€ that year. The two-day conference ticket was charged 125 euros. I was asked to coordinate and moderate a discussion including four speakers, preferably international. There was a budget for flight tickets and accommodation, but no fees for the participants. The festival coordinator who made the proposal was paid for their work. To me these were signs of distorted priorities of the festival organiser and so I turned down the offer.

These kinds of situations keep tantalising our souls afterwards. Is the person making the proposal actually aware of their responsibility as an employer? Would they change their behaviour, if their attention was drawn to the issue? Experience has shown that some of the organisers are ready to reshape their mode of functioning after further explanations. Others, having received the criticism, become defensive and reactive by getting irritated, offended, or by denying the problem or by self-justifying. Hence, educating the employers is a troublesome job that also remains unpaid.

Many people are cautious when refusing an unpaid work proposal to avoid a conflict. Often the reason for refusal is presented as having lack of time in order to politely avoid the controversy around money. The aim is to preserve good relations, because the culture field is small and there is a possibility that after a while the colleague making the proposal might start working on a position which will provide them with a bigger budget.

Anyhow, what is certain is that there will sometimes be situations in work life when it is necessary to say no. It makes sense to be prepared for it and to have thought through beforehand the limits of one's consent. What are my non-negotiable terms? What is my approach to saying no?

How to say no to unpaid labour?

Avoiding a conflict
“Thank you for the invitation! Unfortunately, I am busy and cannot find time for this project.”

Naming the issue
“No, thank you! I am not financially so well off as to be able to accept unpaid proposals. Creative activity is my work and I depend on the remuneration for this work. I hope there will be opportunities in the future to collaborate under different kinds of working conditions.”

Actively addressing the issue
“I do not accept unpaid labour. I find the work proposal problematic. I wish to express my criticism and initiate a dialogue.”

The exchange with the person proposing unpaid labour will develop in a peaceful climate, if you describe the nature of the problem using a neutral tone. Be prepared for a longer debate in consequence of your feedback that might not end up producing the desired results. If you are afraid that addressing the issue might end with a dispute which then might weigh against the future work proposals, then it may be reasonable to avoid a conflict. But the opposite might be worth considering – it is not necessarily a bad thing “to ruin” the relationship with an employer who makes proposals for unpaid or poorly paid labour. Could it be better, if this employer wouldn't bother you with lousy proposals in the future?

Collective intervention
“Dear art institution / Dear colleague! This is a collective communication arising from unpleasant experiences we have had working with you as former or current collaborators. We wish to draw attention to problematic areas in your practice in order to initiate a discussion.”
If you have received an unpaid work proposal, then you can be quite sure that your colleagues have received the same kind of proposals. If we all conform to this and find the polite pretexts in order to refuse the proposals, then the employers will not get any critical feedback that could incite them to change their conduct. Unfortunately for now, the employees are the ones bearing the troublesome load of educating the employers – it shouldn't be this way, but oftentimes it just is the reality. Do not leave yourself alone expressing the discontentment, it is safer and more efficient to voice the criticism alongside with other colleagues.

When to say yes to unpaid labour?

Few months after I had refused the proposal by Tallinn Music Week, I received a new one for unpaid labour from the same person. This time the person inviting me had a different role, representing a self-organizing cultural initiative. I said yes, because the topic was interesting and meaningful to me. After having said yes, I found myself in the position of a coordinator inviting people to participate in a discussion without being paid for it. Just before the beginning of the event, it became clear that the audience entry was charged 2 euros. I felt that I should have communicated this to the discussion panelists in good time, but the info only reached me at the last minute. It was too late to back off and as the entrance fee was symbolic, I categorised the situation as a border-line case. However, I learned my lesson for the future. If the content of an unpaid proposal would be to coordinate the unpaid labour of other people, I will refuse it. Especially, when at the further end of the delegation line there is a culture festival's organisational panel which gets paid for their work.

Voluntary work has always been part of my life and I do it with pleasure. I have formulated the principles to follow when facing a new situation: Will I be doing unpaid work following my own initiative or a request made by someone else? Will I be doing it in a collective or by myself? Will the work give me satisfaction or acquire extra effort and labour? Would it be possible to actually find funding for this particular work? What is the purpose of this given activity?
I refuse to work for free in the cultural field, because I am a culture professional and do not have other sources of income for earning “real” money. In my opinion, there is no need for voluntary contributions to develop the cultural sector, because there exist already many organisations and persons that are getting paid for doing it. I often hear from the artists that they agree to unpaid labour hoping to get a foothold into the art field. Probably, these kinds of career technicalities have a good reasoning to some extent, but at the same time it is necessary to take notice of the forever youthful quality of the culture sector which relies extensively on ambitious and enthusiastic artists who, being in the beginning of their professional life, will agree to unpaid or underpaid labour for the sake of their future. When time passes and these artists start asking for being fairly paid for their work, then the employers will turn to new enthusiasts instead.

No or yes? Who can afford to refuse? Who can afford to accept?

Most of the time the freelance artists are not facing the choice between paid or unpaid labour. Instead, they need to decide whether to agree to underpaid labour. This is a complex decision influenced by more compelling considerations. But it is necessary to take note that some of the work remains without remuneration even when it is formally considered as paid labour. When an exhibit house pays an artist 12 euros after the opening of a personal exhibition, then is this underpaid or unpaid labour? When the artist receives 1 euro per day for participation in a group exhibition? When an academic employment contract states that reviewing a master’s thesis equals three academic hours of work which actually is just about enough to examine the work, then is the writing of the review underpaid or unpaid labour?

I have been teaching as an external lecturer in the Estonian Academy of Arts for ten years. When in 2015 the monthly aggregation of social tax became available, I decided that I am no longer willing to teach students with health insurance while being without one myself. I did not give up teaching, but I tried to fit my schedule of lectures in a shorter time frame. When the payment for a course covered my social security costs for a month or for a month and a half, then I tried to fit the teaching period into a respective time frame. This was possible in 2015, because the monthly minimum gross wages for social tax liabilities were 355 euros. In 2021 the monthly wages correspond to 584 euros, while the lowest rate for a 2-credit course is 500 euros. This does not represent monthly wages, but a payment executed at the end of a term. The teaching work does not secure the freelance lecturer with health insurance even for a month. Recently, I decided to stop lecturing in such working conditions.

After having taken the decision I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was relieved by having pulled myself together and given up a poor job. On the other hand, I could not hold back the worrying thoughts instantly popping up in my head – what would be the future outcome of this step? Knowing that the refusal of one person would bring no change into the working conditions in the Estonian Academy of Arts left a sour taste in the mouth. In the chronically underpaid art field, there will undoubtedly be someone who would really need these 500 euros. There have also been times in my own life, when I gratefully accepted all the proposals, and now I rather fear that most of these kinds of days are still ahead.

Clearly, everyone cannot afford to refuse an underpaid proposal. Refusing goes hand in hand with a privilege of having a backup. But accepting an underpaid proposal relies on the same privilege. There are quite a few people in the art field whose expensive hobby is financed by their parents or partner. Freelance artists often survive thanks to real estate that allows them to get by with modest means. Hereby, I wish to adjure the more privileged culture professionals to consider that accepting underpaid work proposals is non-solidaristic with the colleagues who cannot afford to do it.

If freelance artists would stand by each other to collectively refuse poor working conditions, the culture institutions would be forced to act accordingly. Collective pressure would force them to reconsider the principles of budgeting, to set different kinds of priorities, and to make more efforts to find extra funding. When the institutional curators keep, year in, year out, making work proposals with fees from 50 to 200 euros and there are still plenty of artists accepting to collaborate under these conditions, then there is no reason for art institutions to change their policies. Unfortunately, the experience so far has shown that creating such a collective head of artists is unlikely. And the effect of refusing is minimal when done alone. What to do then? I would suggest to relentlessly keep on resisting and to express the discontentment by complaining – individually or collectively, privately or publicly. If it is impossible to refuse, then say “I’d rather not.”

Photo: Epp Kubu