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The expectation of unpaid care work within activism – time to stop

In a world where nothing is for free, Tiffany Kagure Mugo asks, why are hard-working activists, especially women, still asked to give of their time and talent for next to nothing? It is time that society recognised the value of their labour.

“Just come through and check out this heart murmur quickly.” These words have never been said to a cardiovascular surgeon. In fact, the only time I’ve ever witnessed someone get surgery for free was in the movie John Q and that was only because the main character held up the entire hospital because his son was dying. My point is that there are some professions where it would be unthinkable to ask someone to work for free because society at large recognises the value of their labour. The situation is different, it seems, when it comes to artists and activists.

Many young artists – musicians, choreographers, photographers, etc. – are familiar with the ‘exposure’ argument: “We can’t pay you but if you do this for us it will give you exposure.” A similar argument in the activist world is the passion argument. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments keeps a roof over my head.

Unpaid care work

The world over, women spend hours doing work that is seen to have no outright value other than being deserving of hugs and possibly a Mother’s Day card. It is estimated that women already spend two to 10 times more time on unpaid care work than men do. In addition, they do four times more actual work than men in a lifetime. And so, in a world where women’s labour is often not economically quantified even though it contributes to the GDP, this reinforcement of free labour is dangerous.

AIDS activists protest in the streets of Cape Town 26 November 2001 against the government policy on HIV/AIDS. Photo: ANP/ EPA/Anna Zieminski
AIDS activists protest in the streets of Cape Town 26 November 2001 against the government policy on HIV/AIDS. Photo: ANP/ EPA/Anna Zieminski

What is more, a number of women I know have had to fight inner and outer demons to get to where they are today. Time and time again, when I speak to women in activist circles, I hear stories of how they are expected to turn up at idea emporiums, facilitate training, attend strategic meetings and speak in public spaces for absolutely no pay. And all this is in the name of furthering the work of civil society.

Often these events are organised by entities that do amazing work but the funding never seems to cover the cost of the labour of the activists who are invited to share their skills and knowledge.

Guilty of being grateful

When one reaches a certain point in your career, you start receiving invitations to speak at a variety of events; to share wisdom and knowledge. At that point, you are so grateful that you are on people’s radar that you agree to go for free. Sometimes you even make your own way there, through your own means. You do not even mention reimbursement for attending, let alone asking them to pay you for your knowledge – which, I may add, was hard won through years of unpaid internships and expensive tuition fees, which you are still paying for.

A student from the Wits drama school lays out a sign on pairs of shoes to raise awareness at the issue of gender violence at Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 August 2016. The shoes are there as part of the performance asking viewers to 'live in someone else shoes'. Photo: ANP/EPA/Kim Ludbrook
A student from the Wits drama school lays out a sign on pairs of shoes to raise awareness at the issue of gender violence at Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 August 2016. The shoes are there as part of the performance asking viewers to ‘live in someone else shoes’. Photo: ANP/EPA/Kim Ludbrook

I call this ‘the guilt of being grateful’. You do not want to rock the boat because you are so grateful they even thought of you. However, what you forget is the reason they asked you is that you have something of value to contribute.

I was recently given this advice by a colleague and mentor of mine on this subject. She said, “If it is not actively furthering your career, then set your rate.” Otherwise, you become that person who people know they can call on whenever they need a cheap titan or brilliance on a budget. This advice was echoed by a number of brilliant women who had been in their respective fields for some time.

Women with passion the first to get shafted

Sadly, asking people to give of their time and labour for free is a practice that is rife in the world of social justice work.

Sadly, asking people to give of their time and labour for free is a practice that is rife in the world of social justice work. In a field where people are trying to stay within budget, the first people to get shafted are the women with the passion. We are the first to be asked to speak on this panel for free, to travel to a different region to tackle Gender Based Violence there, to head up this initiative on storytelling and the electric world of the Internet for two days, to come up with a social media strategy for this or that organisation… And when all is said and done and the dust settles, someone is being paid a salary, participants have learned new skills and been empowered, some high-profile, high-paid (white) consultant has compiled all your knowledge, data and work into a stellar report and action plan – and you? Well, you have made the world a better place. And the cycle of unpaid care work continues.

We need to value our people more. We need to tell social justice activists, especially women, that what they do is important and worth it.

We need to value our people more. We need to tell social justice activists, especially women, that what they do is important and worth it. There are some women who can afford to give their time and effort for free, but there are many who cannot. When you create a budget for an event, factor in that the person you are asking to speak or to share their knowledge are just as important as the caterer, the venue, the sound person, the security and even yourself (especially if you work for an organisation) because everyone should be paid for their labour.

Women spend hours doing work that is seen to have no outright value other than being deserving of hugs and possibly a Mother’s Day card. Photo: Pixabay
Women spend hours doing work that is seen to have no outright value other than being deserving of hugs and possibly a Mother’s Day card. Photo: Pixabay

It must also be said that there is nothing wrong with someone making money from  passion projects. There are accountants out there who are passionate about the work they do – they are not told to pay back the money the minute someone sees that they are excited about a job or a project.

Being able to survive to fight another day is important because, as the saying goes, ‘You cannot pour from an empty cup’. And we would not want the supply of people driven by passion to eventually run out.

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