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freelance writer exploitation
it's global
by reem al-omari (@Reemawi)
9.26.07
writing

Since I decided to try my hand at serious freelancing recently, I signed up with a few freelance-bidding sites, one of which is Getafreelancer.com. I’ve come across some pretty wild things on there, as it is one of the free ones of the group and where truly the wild things are.

Exploitation at its worst is embodied in freelancing opportunities that pay nothing but a few bucks and strip a writer of their right to a byline. One job posting reads this: “This is ‘work for hire’ and I will own all copyrights and you will not be able to use it as samples or for anything else ever. Essentially you are my ghostwriter and you are not allowed to disclose the fact that you wrote these articles to anyone.”

After reading a number of similar job postings, I asked myself who would agree to such humiliating conditions. To not only be underpaid for a ton of work (one posting asked for 500 original articles in 20 days), but to not be able to take credit for your work is exploitation at its worst. What makes the situation even more disturbing is that these jobs get taken, and are filled in record time.

The question of who takes these jobs was quickly answered for me.

The answer is writers in Asia. That’s right. Just when you thought it was too much that even your drive-thru order at McDonald’s is being processed by “Sue” in India, you are hit with the cold fact that even in a profession where the mastering of a language ought to be essential-- it is a low priority when compared to budgeting.

Not to say that someone in India couldn’t write flawlessly in English (English is my second language, and I write and spell better than some native English speakers), but it’s still disturbing all the same. To think of how many writers are looking for work right here in the US is depressing. Some of them are even bidding for jobs that pay peanuts for an encyclopedia’s worth of work. Three of the projects I lost went to individuals in India, or the Philippines.

I am disheartened. But I suppose that with the site being a worldwide service provider, it’s no surprise that people from Asia, or any other continent will have the chance to bid on jobs.

Another, more terrifying trend I came across during my still short existence on the site is something that makes you go “Wow.”

Take for example a recent bid I made on a job that paid little, but offered good experience to mention for later gigs. I was outbid. When you lose a bid, Getafreelancer.com emails you an outbid notice, and in that outbid notice there is a link to the profile page of the person who outbid you. Well, one of the people who outbid me (for pay of no more than $100 in return for work worth a lot more) was a college professor with a Masters in Journalism, and an impressive writing portfolio.

I can look at this from a few angles.

One angle makes me worry that my lack of experience will be an even more major obstacle in getting freelance work than I’d already expected. Another makes me worry that no matter how “seasoned” a writer I become, I might still have to look for such jobs. What blew me away, really, was how this woman had the time to be a university professor, and still found time to write 15 original articles, but that’s not here nor there. More important, why is this seasoned professional selling herself so insultingly short by accepting peanuts for pay, on a job a writing minnow like me could perform?

I recently read an article about freelance-bidding sites. The article titled “Bidding War,” appeared in July’s issue of Writer’s Digest. The question being tackled by Michelle Strait, the author is whether such sites are helpful to professional writers or harmful in that they exploit said professionals.

Truth be told, I have no problem with low pay, or even no pay, as long as those performing the jobs are consenting adults, and get recognition for their work. To have a recognizable byline is all I am looking for at this point, so if you ask me to write for Vanity Fair for free, you bet your darntooten I will do it with a big smile on my face. After all, to have my name on a byline in Vanity Fair alone is worth a million bucks.

My beef is that some of the jobs posted on these sites strip writers of their rights to be recognized for their hard work-- and they do it globally. Some of the jobs are the very definition of exploitation, bordering on slavery.

Having said all that, my discoveries haven’t weakened my strong will to make freelancing a source of money, and I won’t stop using Getafreelancer.com for a while. But rest assured that as soon as my freelancing exploration turns into an established way of making dough, I will be shelling it out for full benefit memberships at sites where a writer is given credit for their work through more legitimate freelance opportunity providers.


ABOUT REEM AL-OMARI

Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.

more about reem al-omari

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COMMENTS

robert melos
9.27.07 @ 1:54a

I've also noticed at least one site where people were bidding $10 and less for jobs that call for 50 or more stories. I'm constantly out bid. It is frustrating. I keep thinking there must be a better way.

reem al-omari
9.27.07 @ 2:30a

There is, I suppose, if you wanna shell out the dough. I personally wouldn't know since I don't have any premier memberships on any of the supposedly more legitimate sites, but for the money they're charging, they better be a better source of freelance work!

robert melos
9.27.07 @ 3:36a

I only do the free sites, or memberships. I haven't joined any with fees. I mostly use writerlance, although I have yet to actually win a bid. Usually I don't even bid because the bids are almost always already too low. I can't justify prostituting my craft. I'm more than willing to give my work away for free, as long as it's recognized as my work. I agree, as writers, we deserve more respect. There's no shame in ghost writing, and under the right circumstances I'd go for it, but looking at the bidding sites I can't even afford to give away my craft.

tracey kelley
9.27.07 @ 11:23p

Freelancing is not for people who have pacemakers, experience difficulty breathing, or suffer from tunnel vision.

It also takes anywhere from 2-5 years to make a decent living at it. "Decent living" is relative.

Many people sign up to be freelance "writers" because they want extra money or to work from home. Both are fine, fine reasons to explore the field.

But indeed, the competition is fierce, clients lie or don't pay, record-keeping is a bitch, and many of these clearinghouse sites are chock full of spammers. Plus, your odds are 200-1 that you'll be selected for a legitimate job.

And many people actually think you'll work for free.

Better to put together a portfolio and schelp it around to small businesses, ad agencies, community papers, and the like to get your name and clips out locally. The stronger the writing becomes, the greater likelihood you'll rise above the rest.

reem al-omari
9.28.07 @ 1:16a

Thanks for the great insight, Tracey! I've been getting floods of "new Projects" emails from Getafreelancer.com, and the last couple of days have just ignored them, because they just make my blood boil.

After the input I've gotten from you and Robert, I think I'm gonna start looking at different avenues on the very long and winding road to freelance living. It's just disheartening to find these things out and see that no matter how good a writer you are, you still have to struggle against those who simply have the inclination to lower their fee.

robert melos
9.28.07 @ 5:24a

Reem, it is disheartening, and not limited to just this field. I recently looked at some want ads for jobs I considered in my mind to be higher paying (jobs at local colleges) and discovered even professors are being advertised for at salaries less than I've made some years in real estate (note I've never really made more than $30K in any given year. I suffer from being honest with clients and that hampers my earning abilities). I was stunned to discover the jobs I considered to be in the $50K range weren't. It seems no one wants to pay people for their talents.

I guess what I'm saying is, even though it is disheartenting, expect the best and maybe things will pick up.

lisa r
9.28.07 @ 3:50p

Reem, I have become a freelance writer/editor in a rather specialized field, and I've found that the best way to get jobs is to contact people you know who either are in the market for freelancers or know someone who is. It's taken a while, but the projects are starting to materialize at a more regular rate (thank heavens for textbook adoption schedules!) and the best thing about going freelance is that no two projects are ever the same.

Robert, professor salaries are often dependent on the type of college (community colleges may only pay a couple of thousand per course a semester at best), whether or not its a 100% teaching position or whether there are research or extension duties attached, and sometimes even whether or not the position is funded by a grant. Some positions are 9-month positions as well. The high-flying pay in academia comes at the large universities and varies based on degree, professional accomplishments, publication history, whether or not the position is tenure-track, and a host of other criteria.

reem al-omari
9.28.07 @ 3:55p

Lisa, It sounds like for freelancing to not take a whole lifetime to be a real gig, you need to basically know the right people. It's gonna be a S-L-O-W start for me, I guess, but I can dig it!



lisa r
9.28.07 @ 6:58p

Reem, I honestly think part of it is good old-fashioned serendipity--being in the right place (either in person or online) at the right time. My current primary project came about because I did a search for "subject matter expert" on Yahoo...not a job search engine or anywhere specialized. Others happen because friends are contacted and their project plates are too full, so they pass along my credentials. The nice thing is that now I get the chance to return the favor on occasion.

Keep up the good work, and I bet something will come your way soon.



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