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Unpaid Labor: What to Do When No One Has a Clue

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Wait...did we not get the memo? When did the term "unpaid labor" go from meaning "I'm about to have a baby" to "Who needs a salary? Let's all work for free?"

One of the disturbing new trends to emerge from this changing economy is the expectation that smart, talented people will happily give away their considerable skills and their best ideas, without charge. They'll even offer it to you before you have a chance to ask.

Landing an internship used to mean you got a paying job (okay, a low-paying job) that was a foot in the door. Now it means your parents foot the bill for your rent and living expenses while you work for free. Or worse. You can shell out $8,000 to toil in the field of your dreams, in a "guaranteed internship" arranged through the University of Dreams (www.summerinternships.com/internships).

Surely the company will utilize your skills and then reward your efforts. Or not. This, from The New York Times: "At a Manhattan children's film company, an NYU student who hoped to work in animation during her unpaid internship said she was instead assigned to the facilities department and ordered to wipe the door handles each day to minimize the spread of swine flu."

Launching your career once meant starting small and working your way up in the organization with promotions, pay raises, and bonuses. Now you graduate with $100,000 dollars in education loans, persuade Goldman Sachs or Vogue to let you work for nothing, and (if it's not against corporate rules) blog about your job to network and maybe snag a book contract. How's that blogging going? "Let's Panic About Babies," (www.lets-panic.com) created an ad on their very successful site with the headline: "Start a Mommy Blog. Make enough money to buy some gum."

In fairness, unpaid bloggers enjoy the sweet satisfaction that comes from getting their voice and their views out in the blogosphere where millions of people can savor them. Arianna Huffington puts it best, "Self-expression is the new entertainment." Yet, shockingly, most landlords will not accept your recent Gawker post in lieu of rent money.

If freelance means "free" and intern means "no pay", volunteering now means "networking". "Besides putting your skills to good use at a cause you believe in, you demonstrate your expertise and commitment to other like-minded individuals, who may become, or refer you to, prospective clients, partners, or employers for you," says marketing consultant Donna Fisher. You're still offering your time without expectation of payment. But just until you find something that pays.

Oh, by the way. We're writing this blog for free.

SITUATION: You'll be writing a regular column for a website, gratis. But first they ask you to sign an exclusivity contract saying you won't blog for anyone else. How should you respond?

In cyberspace, there is almost no money. And there are no rules. It would be nice to say, "Anyone who wants to pay you nothing and then insist on exclusivity is such a jerk you don't want to be in business with him/her". But that response, however satisfying, may be counterproductive --- as in other media, there's no end of jerks on the Web. My best idea: Say you'll do it, but only for X months. Then you'll revisit payment. (Get this agreement in a form that's binding.) Meanwhile, while you do great blogging for free, look for a better gig. (If you find one that actually pays, see if there are two. And then write me.) -- Jesse Kornbluth, founder and editor of the cultural concierge, HeadButler.com, who has blogged for Beliefnet.com for money and HuffingtonPost.com for free. He regrets nothing.

SITUATION: You offer to write for free for an online site and they turn you down. What does this say about your worth, and how's your self-esteem now?

"It's happened to me. You just have to be sure of yourself and know that your work has merit. If you believe in yourself, don't believe what they say - they might be giving the work to a cousin. Fuck 'em. I have infinite confidence. " -- Marshall Efron, who often blogs

SITUATION: Well-known, well-connected and buzzy organizations like God's Love We Deliver have so many volunteers that they are turning new ones away. Do you have to admit you got turned down? And is volunteering at the local animal shelter a bad career move?

"Volunteering at a local animal shelter means only 1 thing...poop scooping and we all know it. So, if you are looking for bragging rights forget it. And if you are hoping this job will put you in a position to glad hand a potential employer...don't get involved - cause you'll never get the shit out from under your nails." -- Christopher Reintz, Executive Marketing Director, Ogilvy & Mather

SITUATION: You decide to give your old suits, dresses and skirts to a resale shop that raises money for a charity you believe in. The shop refuses to even consider taking them unless you dry-clean them all first -- which will cost you at least $100. Why are you being taken to the cleaners?

"Don't do it. No matter how worthy the cause. I'd rather drop a bagful of clothes into the Goodwill box or give them to a shelter, even if it means I don't get a tax receipt. The clothes are still going to help someone, somewhere." -- A thrifty business woman who now has a new reason to believe that no good deed goes unpunished