Fandom And The Free Labor Problem
June 15, 2017 1:29 PM   Subscribe

In response to the announcement by the staff of major anime convention Anime Expo that they were looking for "volunteer translators", AnimeFeminist has a longform editorial on the fandom's cultural devaluation of technical skills and how it serves as exploitation, and how to push back to get labor credited - and paid - as such.
posted by NoxAeternum (52 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can see their point but I don't agree and their argument quickly falls apart.

I mean, sure, it's a dollar a ticket and it pays for a translator or seven. But then what about all the other professional labor at the event? AV guys are zero? IT guys are zero? Hospitality are zero? These are all completely fungible to a degree, just like the translators, but when you add in a dollar for each half a dozen of all these professional staff it adds up to the point where fans can't physically attend.

In general the people who make money out of something like this are people who need a license, people who can get sued, or people that need to do the job or it all falls apart. Basically, the people who either work 2,000+ hours over the course of a year to ensure the shitshow goes off with a minimal number of hitches, or the people who get paid to put a signature and a professional looking stamp on a required document. Having done a year of a borderline case of requiring a hell of a lot of work (in my case dealer's hall head for a small convention) I can see why people at larger conventions sure as hell get paid because I struggled to do a leading role at a smaller convention in my free time.

That's not to say there aren't conventions and organizations that take advantage of fan labour. I'm 90% sure Comic-Con is right on the border line (at least they're still giving out things in-kind to fan labour) but I don't think a call for translators is necessarily a reason to entirely rethink the economics of fan conventions because I gotta tell you, a lot of people do a lot of work for nothing more than the satisfaction of putting on a great event and if you start telling everyone they should be valued at retail rates and to go get theirs it's not going to end well for the fans and the attendees.
posted by Talez at 1:48 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]


In general the people who make money out of something like this are people who need a license, people who can get sued, or people that need to do the job or it all falls apart. Basically, the people who either work 2,000+ hours over the course of a year to ensure the shitshow goes off with a minimal number of hitches, or the people who get paid to put a signature and a professional looking stamp on a required document. Having done a year of a borderline case of requiring a hell of a lot of work (in my case dealer's hall head for a small convention) I can see why people at larger conventions sure as hell get paid because I struggled to do a leading role at a smaller convention in my free time.

Most people even at Comic Con who aren't one of the three, and plenty in that third category are volunteers. They get a free ticket for themselves, and the ability to let other people purchase a ticket.
posted by zabuni at 2:06 PM on June 15


If they need IT people, then an event of that size almost certainly does not ask someone who just got off Codecademy to fix a problem with their website. But they are indeed asking not just for volunteers but for amateurs. N2 fluency is defined as capable of listening comprehension at "nearly natural speed", as I understand it? They're looking for people to translate for a fandom convention and then saying they'll take people who can't necessarily reliably keep up with non-specialized content at normal speech rates?

That seems bound to put a lot of people into a position where they're being asked to do something they're not really prepared to do, because that's the available alternative to paying people. That's unfair to the people being asked to translate, and unfair to the guests, and unfair to everybody who's paying for the event. If they can't get enough actual qualified people for free, it seems like the direction that should go is payment (or at least improving volunteer perks), not reducing standards for interpreters to below-professional levels. I'd worry a lot about an organization that was looking for IT volunteers this way.
posted by Sequence at 2:08 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]


because I gotta tell you, a lot of people do a lot of work for nothing more than the satisfaction of putting on a great event and if you start telling everyone they should be valued at retail rates and to go get theirs it's not going to end well for the fans and the attendees.

How so? Why shouldn't they get paid for working, especially when we're talking about one of the largest anime conventions in the US, not a small con being run by fans. You even admit that they wind up paying the people who won't work unless there's a paycheck involved, which makes the original point that much more silly.

Fandom isn't an excuse for not paying for labor, nor is "but think of the attendees!" We shouldn't be balancing budgets by asking people to donate their labor to professional commercial events.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:09 PM on June 15 [19 favorites]


How so? Why shouldn't they get paid for working, especially when we're talking about one of the largest anime conventions in the US, not a small con being run by fans. You even admit that they wind up paying the people who won't work unless there's a paycheck involved, which makes the original point that much more silly.

But there's a gulf of difference spending 2000 hours in the course of a year on something and showing up for a weekend or a few days. That's why some people get paid.
posted by Talez at 2:11 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


But there's a gulf of difference spending 2000 hours in the course of a year on something and showing up for a weekend or a few days. That's why some people get paid.

No, there isn't, as any day contractor will tell you. Fandom needs to stop assuming that people (and honestly, I wouldn't be all that terribly surprised if the majority of the people donating labor are women, as that seems to be a reoccurring theme) will happily donate labor to a commercial venture, and instead as a whole accept that if the fandom wants nice things, they have to pay for them.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:16 PM on June 15 [16 favorites]


There's a big difference between the kind of volunteering a lot of people do at conventions, like helping with set-up or tear-down, staffing the info desk, working at registration, and so on. These are jobs that can be explained in a few minutes, and just about anyone without a contra-indicating disability can do them. The people who show up the weekend of a con to move chairs are generally not professional chair-movers.

Asking a professional to perform their professional task for free is a different matter. Especially if it's a job that can't (with rare exceptions) be performed to a decent standard by amateurs. At that point, the issue is not entirely about whether people who work at the convention are being paid; it's whether attendees are going to have the good experience they're entitled to. "How much do we need to spend to make the convention accessible and a good experience for attenders?" should be the question.
posted by Orlop at 2:27 PM on June 15 [24 favorites]


Why shouldn't they get paid for working, especially when we're talking about one of the largest anime conventions in the US, not a small con being run by fans.

I think the problem is that you can't actually change the overall culture for just one part of it. You can either have volunteers or paid staff. If paid staff, how do you justify paying some staff but not all staff? You can't pay less than minimum wage - how many hours make a convention? Are conventions even financially feasible if all people are paid even minimum wage, much less market rate?

And once you start doing it for the big conventions, it trickles down to the smaller conventions who /definitely/ can't afford to do it.

Maybe that's even the right answer, but we need to be realistic about the fact that changing these norms would shutter many conventions that fans love and would be sad to disappear.
posted by corb at 2:31 PM on June 15


I don't see the problem with people donating their time for something they are passionate about. I used to volunteer one day a week doing IT for a non-profit. If I'm not allowed to make myself happy by donating my time (or an organization isn't allowed to accept my donation), something is wrong.
posted by Triplanetary at 2:46 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]


One nice thing about allowing volunteers, and encouraging/supporting them, is that it gives people with relatively low experience but high interest an opportunity to learn, to participate, to grow, and to network with others.

However, that's predicated on the idea that some experienced, paid people are around to structure the volunteers' contributions and encourage/support them.
posted by davejay at 2:56 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


I can'r help but notice, that in recent years, the convention circuit for comics and anime has been increasingly used as a way to promote new releases by the major studios and others involved in the industry. The thought that these events are somehow "favors" for fans, is shown somewhat hollow by all this promotional activity these fans are paying to be shown. It's an advertising dreamland. Given how much the companies producing the comics, films, and anime benefit from these conventions one might expect them to pick up much of the costs for translators and like needed professionals.

On the perspective of fans, it's more than a little depressing that the same people who would find it such an honor to meet or just see a favorite artist in the flesh somehow also want to believe that fandom in itself is not just sufficient reward, but almost proof of merit. The idea that pay is involved often seems to taint the proceeding, as if it converts their fandom and the art into merely a retail exchange. This isn't a realistic appraisal and isn't helpful for the artists, people involved behind the scenes, or, in the long run, the fans as the arts aren't sustained by mania alone.

That isn't to say there are no reasonable uses for volunteer labor, or no legitimate reasons for providing it, but that fans need to be more demanding about the financial arrangements in making sure all the necessary people involved in the arts they admire get paid so the work can continue.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:56 PM on June 15 [11 favorites]


More and more I'm starting to feel that cons above a certain size are really just not good for any of the humans involved in them, as dealers, volunteers, or attendees. Once you start being large enough for corporate entities to start being a major factor in your con, stuff starts getting worse.
posted by egypturnash at 3:10 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]


Asking a professional to perform their professional task for free is a different matter.

They do not appear to be asking for professionals, however. The linked tweet says "Are you fluent in Japanese? We are looking for volunteer interpreters". It doesn't ask if you are a professional translator willing to do the job for free.

Translating is interesting because its a job that obviously has a huge professional component, but also one that an amateur fluent in two languages can make a reasonable stab at.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:12 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


I don't see the problem with people donating their time for something they are passionate about. I used to volunteer one day a week doing IT for a non-profit. If I'm not allowed to make myself happy by donating my time (or an organization isn't allowed to accept my donation), something is wrong.

I've talked about this in other threads on the topic, but the short answer is I'm not about to let you devalue my labor. You're trying to argue that your action occurs in a vacuum, but it doesn't - if enough people donate their labor, then the expectation becomes that everyone should. Now, this is highly situational - to use your example, donating services to a non-profit is something that I do support, though I would ask that you give them a invoice showing that your time was fairly donated, because that's a good practice that protects us. But donating labor to a commercial venture - yeah, that's something I'm fighting to protect my interests, if for no other reason.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:12 PM on June 15 [24 favorites]


Also it sounds like they have a mix of paid and unpaid translators, with the harder jobs going to the paid staff.

If you have a problem with volunteering at cons at all thats a different matter (I spent a decade or so doing a lot of con volunteering in Atlanta, especially DragonCon, so I'm familiar with / reasonably comfortable with the idea personally).
posted by thefoxgod at 3:14 PM on June 15


They do not appear to be asking for professionals, however. The linked tweet says "Are you fluent in Japanese? We are looking for volunteer interpreters". It doesn't ask if you are a professional translator willing to do the job for free.

Translating is interesting because its a job that obviously has a huge professional component, but also one that an amateur fluent in two languages can make a reasonable stab at.


No, they really can't, and the article explains why (interpretation goes beyond just translation, into conveying mood and feeling.) Beyond that, this again devalues professional labor in a few ways, as well as giving a poorer product.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:15 PM on June 15 [6 favorites]


No, they really can't

You're arguing they won't do as good a job, which I don't disagree with. But people do "volunteer translating" on the fly all the time, helping tourists / people in line at a store / friends who are traveling, etc. Thats along the lines of what they're looking for here.

The volunteers are not translating panels or things like that.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:18 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Translating is interesting because its a job that obviously has a huge professional component, but also one that an amateur fluent in two languages can make a reasonable stab at.

My concern is that they THINK an amateur who is kind-of-sort-of-maybe fluent in two languages can make a reasonable stab at it, but I'm not actually sure that's true. Or, at least, that this "stab at it" meets the expectations that guests or attendees of a convention of this size do (and should) have about how seriously they take what they're doing. Even if they're not translating at panels, people are paying for the privilege of going to this, and guests are traveling long distances to be there. I don't know what they could possibly need translators for that isn't actually important to either guest or attendee experience; it's not like these people are just going to mill around and occasionally direct someone to the bathroom.
posted by Sequence at 3:25 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]


They do not appear to be asking for professionals, however. The linked tweet says "Are you fluent in Japanese? We are looking for volunteer interpreters". It doesn't ask if you are a professional translator willing to do the job for free.

It sounds like they could have saved themselves some difficulties by leaving out the word "interpreters" and just asking for bilingual volunteers to meet and accompany their "guests of honour", which seems to be what the volunteer "interpreters" will be doing.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:26 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]


So this is kind of awkward as the first assertion in the essay "If they can’t afford to pay interpreters, what hope do any of the smaller cons have?" is untrue if you look at the replies in the Twitter thread.

"We have paid interpreter positions, as well as volunteer ones."

So this isn't an either/or proposition.
posted by GuyZero at 3:32 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Yeah, if you read through the stuff what they are looking for is volunteers to babysit GoH who also speak Japanese.

I've done the "escort the GoH around" as a volunteer many times at Atlanta scifi cons, its a standard volunteer gig. You don't need translator-level skills to do this, conversational Japanese should be more than sufficient.

I agree they probably shot themselves in the foot with how they worded this.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:35 PM on June 15 [6 favorites]


While there's a big problem with volunteers or lower-paid workers driving prices down, I think we need to know just exactly what's the organizers demanding and offering to volunteers.
They claim to have paid interpreters, so maybe the volunteers are just expected to work as guides for the guests and speakers in the venue (ie, some interactions with fans and other staff), while the pros handle the actual panels and such?
posted by lmfsilva at 3:36 PM on June 15


Hi there! I'm a lawyer but I'm not your lawyer and this isn't legal advice.

If you're a for-profit venture you can't ask people to work for free. You don't enjoy the legal right to ask for volunteers. No one can or should volunteer for any profit-making venture, full stop. Minimum wage laws apply to for-profit ventures pretty much without exception, and if you can't afford to pay your workers then you're in the wrong business. And yes, you can choose to pay your workers in-kind (free tickets! merch! etc!) but you cannot fail to pay them entirely. Yes, that includes you, for-profit music festivals.

Not-for-profits, government entities, etc. are a different story. Anime Expo is run by a not-for-profit and on that basis probably can call for volunteers.
posted by 1adam12 at 3:38 PM on June 15 [34 favorites]


Professional translator here! In my personal experience, translation and interpretation are pretty different fields — if you're anything like me, and prefer taking your time to figure out how best to say a thing in English, interpretation is going to be a much harder activity that you (read: I) would not be prepared to do. It's surprisingly easy to find yourself in over your head in that regard! Even now, I wouldn't really be comfortable taking any interpretation job that wasn't fairly casual.

That being said, yeah, it does seem a little questionable if a for-profit thing is looking for people to help out for free, even if it's for fairly low-impact "help this non-bilingual person not die during their trip to a country whose language they do not speak" interpretation work.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:04 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


It's the volunteers that don't value their time.
posted by jpe at 4:10 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, of course — much of the time, with volunteer work you get what you pay for. Sometimes you get someone passionate enough to do the work for free, but a lot of the time you get people who feel that they don't really have to work that hard because they aren't really being paid for it anyway.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:14 PM on June 15


Anima Expo volunteers get at least a free day pass to the expo which has a retail value of $55. So it's not like volunteers get absolutely nothing.
posted by GuyZero at 4:25 PM on June 15


Plus don't forget the value of being near a famous person which has so far gone woefully unquantified, but which I bet we could assign a dollar value to through e.g. an auction.
posted by Pyry at 4:47 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Unpaid internships, fighting increases in minimum wage, resistance to living wages, reliance on volunteers. Extreme income disparity.

Your culture is sick and needs to be put down.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:57 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]


Here's a thought: if these events simply can not be run without exploiting workers, maybe they simply can not be run [ethically]. See also: all electronic products, cheap avocados and tomatoes under today's agricultural system, cotton in the antebellum south.

There are certain economic structures and products that are currently priced far below their actual labor value because the people organizing those structures have figured out ways to underpay or not pay their workers. In this case, the workers are motivated by naive enthusiasm or the realization that without their unpaid labor the con won't happen at all, and obviously that does not even compare to whips, chains, and imprisonment as a way extract free labor than. But it is exploitation nonetheless. It forces down wages for professionals, and it victimizes the "volunteers," regardless of the tactics used to trick or coerce them into working for free.

I attend and enjoy cons, so it pains me to say this, but if the labor value of a ticket is $600 or something, that's the value of the ticket. If that means there can't be cons under capitalism, then there can't be cons. I mean obviously there still will be because if we make Indian women burn their hands off so we can have cashew milk we're obviously not going to stop making weebs translate our cons for free. But no amount of rearranging the game pieces is going to make it ethical.
posted by Krawczak at 5:05 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


My little organizational group has put on conferences where simultaneous French/English and English/Russian services were required, both for speakers and, in the case of the Russians, in a personal capacity. The prices of those near-realtime services are mind-blowingly expensive, by far and away our largest costs when we have to do this. The exceed full-service AV fees by a factor of ten or more, for example. I would have a hard time believing that any partly labour of love fan convention would have anywhere near the resources to provide professionally-priced translation services.
posted by bonehead at 5:11 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Plus don't forget the value of being near a famous person which has so far gone woefully unquantified, but which I bet we could assign a dollar value to through e.g. an auction.

I don't think it really works that way, though. The people who would most value proximity to a given celebrity--look, a lot of my best friends are weebs, as it were, but the most die-hard fans of a given person are not people who I would put in charge of being that person's interpreter for any length of time. They need interpreters who're going to be able to handle famous people like professionals do, not like fans do. Otherwise, the famous people, who are themselves professionals, are going to have some very big reasons not to come back. Convention volunteers in general have a good chance of meeting cool people, and that's a perk, but you can't really sell this on "spend a bunch of time with this girl who voices that character you like", I don't think.
posted by Sequence at 5:14 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


But no amount of rearranging the game pieces is going to make it ethical.

If you volunteer at this con for 4 hours, you get a show pass valued at $55 which is $13.75 an hour. I'm really not sure what everyone is arguing about here. This isn't asking for volunteers to pick cotton for free.
posted by GuyZero at 5:17 PM on June 15


I attend and enjoy cons, so it pains me to say this, but if the labor value of a ticket is $600 or something, that's the value of the ticket. If that means there can't be cons under capitalism, then there can't be cons.
What if it means that there can be cons, but only rich people can attend them? I think it's likely that the cons wouldn't go away, but they'd become much more exclusive events, which might suit the people who can afford $600 tickets. But I think that people who are volunteering for a free ticket are often aware of the tradeoff and think it's worth it, because it's a way to get access to culture that they might not otherwise be able to afford.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:17 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


I find the idea of giving away one's labor for someone else's obvious profit and the idea that there is anything wrong with giving away one's labor for a non-profit community venture both fairly pernicious in theory. The tricky part is, uh, deciding what actually counts as which.
posted by atoxyl at 6:10 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Your culture is sick and needs to be put down.

Anime fandom? People have been saying this since the 80s.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:20 PM on June 15


In America, or in Japan? (Trick question: it's both)
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:36 PM on June 15


The con I attend regularly has a parent organization that's a non-profit, and it relies almost exclusively on volunteer labor. (They pay a CART captioner to caption some of the events). But I think there's a real difference between a not-for-profit convention that runs on a kind of "let's all put up a barn together" ethic and a for-profit convention where there are very large media corporations involved, and a much clearer division between Fans and Pros.

I think that anime fandom, for a very long time, really had that "let's all put up a barn together" feeling. When I think about how many free hours people donated doing fan translations or copying fansubs - it feels remarkable, but it also feels really unsustainable. (Maybe I'm projecting because I used to do fan translations and got burned out, but I'd be really surprised if I were the only one.) I'm not as much in anime fandom as I used to be so I could be wrong, but I feel like a lot of that fan activity has become corporate activity - instead of waiting for a year or two (or much longer) for a domestic release while hype builds up among people who import laserdiscs from Japan, now you get new anime episodes going up on Crunchyroll almost simultaneously with the Japanese release. And I think unprofessional do-it-yourself fandom is great, and corporate media companies are fine, but when you have the streams crossing it's probably inevitable for people to feel exploited.

(Back when TokyoPop was a going concern, I was Very Upset that they always had job openings for unpaid intern translators. Looking back, I'm not sure if they relied entirely on unpaid interns, or a mix of paid and unpaid translators, but I still remember that resentment. Even though I applied for that job...)
posted by Jeanne at 7:39 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


If you volunteer at this con for 4 hours, you get a show pass valued at $55 which is $13.75 an hour. I'm really not sure what everyone is arguing about here. This isn't asking for volunteers to pick cotton for free.

Especially if the event isn't being run by a non-profit, why not simply pay the staff in actual money, which they can then choose to use to buy gas for their car, buy groceries, or, yes, tickets to the con? There's a reason we pay people in money and not company scrip, and the IRS is, AFAIK, going to consider it as income one way or another.

For big for-profit music festivals, there's a company called Clean Vibes that seeks "volunteers" to pick up trash. Check out their terms for Outside Lands. I don't for the life of me understand how this isn't literally criminal.

They make their "volunteers" put up a $355 deposit (the cost of a festival ticket), plus a $20 processing fee, and they'll only refund the deposit (not the processing fee) up to three weeks later if you complete every minute of your work shifts. They even say: "Note that injury/illness/emergency is not grounds for a refund unless special circumstances determine it to be by management." Heck, they reserve the right to refuse to return your deposit "for other reasons not listed above, at the sole discretion of Clean Vibes." Under these terms, you could work 17 out of 18 hours, get sick, and not just be paid $0, but be negative by the price of your ticket and the processing fee. But don't worry, you get "the satisfaction of knowing that you assisted this event in diverting as much waste as possible from the landfill!" This also isn't a crazy amazing deal in San Francisco: by my math, 18 hours means you're working for $4.61/hour over the local minimum wage, assuming you get your deposit back.

Do these people have lawyers? How can this possibly be legal?
posted by zachlipton at 9:35 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


If you have no income at all, then of course you can’t pay anyone anything, but if you’re treating your content creation like a job and putting up new work regularly, then why would you not try to monetise it?

My instincts are 180 degrees opposite here.

IMO the sign of how entrenched and insidious the market is is not that some people are willing to work for free. It is that even nominal critics of capitalism seem to struggle to believe there can be value in something when money isn't changing hands.

It's OK to do something for fun or to help others or because you think it'll be a cool experience.
posted by mark k at 10:50 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


It's OK to do something for fun or to help others or because you think it'll be a cool experience.

Not when you wind up undercutting people and devaluing their labor in the process.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:27 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


Another professional translator and interpreter here, though I only do it occasionally now. Worked full-time as a freelancer for a decade some time back.

The reason professional interpreters are super-expensive has a few components. For the sake of specifying the context, assume this is for high-quality, accurate, on-the-fly interpretation from a source language to the interpreter's native language. This isn't just keeping someone alive and oriented:
1. Education. Not a hard and fast requirement as there are talented interpreters without Masters degrees in one of the languages concerned, but generally we're talking at least Masters degree.
2. Life experience. You've lived in a country where the source language is spoken natively. Some places that hire interpreters have a requirement for minimum time spent in source and target language-speaking countries.
3. Professional experience. It's not the first time you've interpreted. Generally, yes, your first interpretation experiences are as a volunteer, because you need to get a feel for it and evaluate your abilities.
4. Time constraints + empathy (yes) + all the above, on the fly, accurately. You're not just translating your thoughts verbally, which is tiring on its own, you're actively listening to another person, comprehending both what they're saying and trying to say (empathy), and translating it, accurately, into another language. It. Is. Exhausting.

In general, professional interpreters don't work more than 4 hours a day. We're not supposed to interpret for more than an hour at a time. It's a lot like teaching: you're not just managing yourself, you're managing a speaker and an audience and in two different languages, with professional exigencies.

Having a mix of paid and volunteer interpreters is pretty common, because it's a good way for potential interpreters to learn the ropes. But it needs to be done well. Respectable volunteer interpretation things generally offer free lodging (accommodation + food) and free entrance to whatever event they're working. They also set the same time limits as for pros. A lot of them have the limit at 2 hours a day. Plus, yes, the volunteers will be working on the lowest-importance stuff, for obvious reasons. As anyone who's ever tried to muddle by in a foreign language and a foreign country knows, it's damn easy to make mistakes. I still remember, coming over as a French major during my last year of my BA, having studied French for 10 years and by then at an advanced level, just how many times I couldn't properly express what I wanted to say. And that was for my own thoughts! Twenty years of life in France later, I still get stuck at times. (This is why you translate into your native language, not one you learned later in life.) Imagine doing that for someone else's thoughts.
posted by fraula at 2:07 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]


It's OK to do something for fun or to help others or because you think it'll be a cool experience.
Not when you wind up undercutting people and devaluing their labor in the process.


That way the only cons (or whatever thing that would otherwise rely on enthusiastic volunteers) would be the ones with rich patrons or corporate money behind them - not, I think, an improvement. Sometimes money just makes things worse.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:54 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I think the problem is that you can't actually change the overall culture for just one part of it. You can either have volunteers or paid staff. If paid staff, how do you justify paying some staff but not all staff? You can't pay less than minimum wage - how many hours make a convention?

From my experience with other events:
* Don't be transparent about your budget and no one knows who gets paid what!
* Don't pay people. Give them grants, gift cards, and tickets.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:34 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I should note that I'm not advocating the above things. I work with a lot of volunteer run events and I only choose ones that are very transparent so that I can see the above things are NOT happening.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:35 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


It's difficult to say if this editorial is entirely wrong-headed capitalism as the author claims both, "they can afford it" and "To be clear, I have no idea what anyone at any anime or manga company is paid." Which one is it? That's the critical piece of information for making your argument.

You can get many things in return for goods or services other than money. The problem is if there are persons who are getting a lot of money from others' labor but if no one is, then everyone is doing this as a labor of love—which is what constitutes a lot of labor and some of the most important labor. Doing work because you love it is a good thing and getting rich off of someone else doing said work is not.
posted by koavf at 10:43 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Not when you wind up undercutting people and devaluing their labor in the process.

I say it's OK to do something for joy and you say no it isn't; grown ups are trying to make a buck. I'm thinking this rather illustrates my point.

Look, if we're both in the marketplace I think it's fine to argue about fair practices around wages. So working 20 hours a day at a financial firm as an barely paid intern so you can crowd out others for a seven figure job slot later is problematic.

But if I'm not in the market place, if I'm doing something as an enthusiastic amateur because I want to, and you're telling me to go away because you're the professional here, I really don't give a damn. You're trying to walk in and monetize something, more power to you if you get away with it I guess, but I'm not required to give up my hobbies just because you think you're planning to extract cash from the people I'm willing to engage with for free.
posted by mark k at 8:59 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


Just because you're an amateur doesn't mean you're not in the market, especially in cases where you're talking about amateurs engaging in professional fields.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:13 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I'll add that there are plenty of studies about how much changes when people move from thinking of things as human interactions to thinking of them market activities. It's not like everything is the same with a little wealth redistribution.

Telling non-profits that they should increase the number of monetary transactions going on in their communities as much as possible is almost always going to be really horrible advice.
posted by mark k at 9:15 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Is it unethical to fix your own car because it undercuts professional mechanics? Labor just doesn't fit into the market model: in a normal market, if you're selling (e.g.) steel, you don't have to worry about passionate volunteer steel undercutting you. I think we need to find a way to stop treating human labor as a normal market good. Until then, we'll keep having these kinds of discussions.
posted by panic at 11:18 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I can see both the depressing-the-market argument and the doing-it-for-love arguments, but the for-profit/non-profit distinction confuses me. It seems like both these arguments apply regardless of who is running the show. Can someone explain why volunteering for a non-profit is more okay than volunteering for a for-profit organization?

I've volunteered for several of my hobby's "cons". These are all events run by 501c3 non-profit organizations, so I guess my work is kosher. But why should it be? I work on the sound crew. If I weren't there, someone else would get paid to do sound. In some sense, I'm still depressing the market for live sound reinforcement.

Is it that my non-profits are probably less incentivized to exploit me as hard as they can? And so while there's no difference in principle, in practice allowing for-profit organizations to accept volunteer work has worse outcomes?

I'm also eliding another practical point, which is that the typical setup needs one person to work continuously and one or two more to pitch in for fifteen minutes at a time during band changes. So the one person gets paid and the others are volunteers, who are free to do other things between changes. But you can't pay someone for fifteen minutes of work every 60-90 minutes, so converting to a fully paid sound crew would require either many times more money or else a significantly more complicated schedule that staggered band changes to let a smaller crew run around between venues.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:06 AM on June 17


For me, the most important difference between volunteering for a non-profit or a for profit organization that is just starting out or struggling compared to a for profit organization that is well established is in whether your volunteer labor is making someone else running the event wealthy at the expense of that wealth being spread out more among others who are making their living doing the thing the volunteer work is replacing.

As I suggested earlier, my problem with volunteering for the big convention events is that big multi-media corporations are using those events to generate publicity for their products and as such making a lot of money off of them. Those events, while ostensibly for fans, are providing huge benefits for corporations while volunteer labor costs in time and effort go largely unaccounted for and professionals who both rely on and are relied upon for their steadier efforts end up losing out. Volunteer labor is often fine, at the margins, or when there is some difficulty in finding suitable funding for an event, but it is labor that is unreliable overall due to its amateur status, where the volunteer's own income comes from some other area, which would be their priority outside these more singular "special" occasions.

Volunteering is often perceived as a necessary favor or an opportunity to gain access to some area of specialized interest otherwise closed off to the participant, but much of the time it is less a necessary favor than exploitation of a free resource and that volunteer involvement cuts off income from those who are needed to produce work on a regular and predictable basis that volunteers can't match. In that way, it can harm the structure the fans rely on in the production of the thing they love by dint of those same fans trying to get closer to it.

I don't see it as a right/wrong absolutist situation so much as one where their should be better accounting of who is benefits, who loses out, and where the money spent and saved is going to prevent the all too regular abuse of "free" labor by those who can and therefore should pay for it.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:42 AM on June 17 [3 favorites]


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