Free Labour in the Wedding Industry

Free Labour in the Wedding Industry

Throughout my experience getting my Wedding Coordinator certification, there have been many things that have troubled me. The item I want to address today is by no means exclusive to the wedding industry… In fact, it strikes me as particularly insidious in a wedding industry context because it’s in direct opposition to the mindset that most wedding professionals hold: Our time and skills are valuable; We should be fairly compensated for our work.

I can confirm that the wedding industry is unequivocally guilty of condoning (sometimes propagating) the “Unpaid Internship” tactic.

We’ll hire you in exchange for experience.”


Let’s take a minute to unpack that.

Letting someone work in exchange for experience” is an awfully loaded way of saying “free labour”.

Think about it: The word “exchange” is used… but what exactly is being exchanged? The employer (or whichever word is most accurate in a scenario) is receiving your time and labour. That’s pretty straightforward. But the employee (or alternate word) is receiving… what? Experience? That’s redundant. You gain experience from doing the work, REGARDLESS of whether or not you are compensated. “Working for the experience” is like saying “Working for the work.” It makes absolutely no sense.

Let’s be generous: How about we say, “you’re working for experience, a recommendation, and material for your portfolio.” But even then, the exchange isn’t equal. You should be receiving these things anyways, in addition to compensation. This is the standard for the industry… at least as far as wedding coordination goes. This is included in the bare minimum.

When you’re hired to work for someone else, under that person’s authority, there are power dynamics at play. The Employer is in a position of power. The Employee is required to report to the Employer and accomplish the tasks given to them in an effective and professional manner. The Employee is acting as a representative of the Employer’s business, and is not to promote themselves or their own ventures. The Employee must also dress and act in accordance with the Employer’s standards. The Employee can choose to behave in a way that reflects poorly on their Employer, but they are expected not to. If they do, they will face scrutiny from other industry professionals and may face extreme difficulty in finding another job in the industry.

In exchange for the Employee following these rules and providing their time, labour, and expertise (ALL of which are valuable), the Employer compensates them financially, materially, or with services. This is the exchange.

But with the Unpaid Internship or “Working for Experience” model, there is either no exchange or an incredibly unequal one. There is no change in what the Employee provides to the Employer… The time, energy, and effort they put in are exactly the same. But the Employer gives them little or nothing in return. The Employer commits to giving the Employee LESS than they would have, otherwise. Therefore, the Employer is the recipient of free labour and is taking advantage of the Employee.

This is unequitable.

Argument: But the Employer doesn’t have to choose you. They could hire ANYONE, but they gave the job to you. You should be grateful for the opportunity to work with them.

Here’s the thing: the Employer hired the Employee because they needed them. NOT out of the kindness or generosity of their heart. The Employer is not doing the Employee a favour by offering them a job. The fact that there is a job to begin with tells us that the job is necessary, and that the Employee filling that role is there because the Employer needs them to be. If there were a cheaper, easier, or more effective way to have the job done, then the Employee would not be needed.

Read that again: The Employee is necessary.

So who is profiting from the “Working for Experience” model? Who is benefiting?

If one person is doing the other a favour, the Employee is doing the Employer a HUGE favour by working for free. No matter how you slice it, the Employee is fulfilling a necessary role for the Employer. And EVERYONE’S time and labour is valuable… Whether you’re a student or an industry veteran, you deserve to be compensated fairly for your work.

When you put yourself in a position of authority or power, you take on the responsibilities associated with that position. You cannot cherry-pick. You cannot say, “I want the power, but not the obligations.” Power is a package deal. Like everything else in life, you must take the good with the bad. You must take the easy with the difficult. This is absolutely essential when you are on the higher end of a power structure, and it is absolutely non-negotiable when you’re a wedding professional hiring someone to work under you.

Should someone still be free to choose to “work for experience”, anyways? Sure. I’m all for people making their own decisions. But free labour should not be expected of anyone. Free labour should not be so easily accommodated or so readily asked for. No industry should be designed to push people into sacrificing their time and energy for nothing in return… Not even newbies who are working their first event. If you are an Employer looking to hire someone “for the experience”, then you are not creating an opportunity. You are looking for someone to exploit. And someone’s willingness to be exploited does not change this.

I am going on record right here, right now: As a Wedding Professional, I will NEVER hire anyone, assistant or otherwise, in exchange for “experience”. I will ALWAYS compensate those who work for me, whether that is with money, services, goods, or resources. And If I can’t afford to compensate someone? Then I can’t afford to hire them in the first place.

Does this sound harsh? To some people, probably. But it isn’t nearly as harsh as exploiting someone else’s labour. And that is exactly what “working in exchange for experience” is all about.

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