Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Coronavirus: Can my employer ask me to work for free?

by Tom Finn | @tomfinn2 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 March 2020 16:15 GMT

A worker cleans up tables and chairs for people as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in New York, U.S., March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Image Caption and Rights Information

Small businesses threatened by COVID-19 are asking staff to work without pay amid layoffs and growing fears of exploitation

By Tom Finn

LONDON, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the spread of coronavirus tests the relationship between employers and staff, some workers have faced an unusual request from their bosses - will they work for free?

Coronavirus: our latest stories

Caught between keeping the virus out of workplaces and reducing business disruption, employers are issuing edicts inconceivable weeks ago, from worker quarantine to office-wide remote work.

The United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide due to COVID-19 and has appealed to businesses to try to retain staff by offering condensed working hours and extending sick pay.

But this has left many employees wondering which calls go too far as their bosses try to keep their firms afloat.

Jason, 34, a secretary at a boutique dog kennel in London who did not want to give his full name, received a letter from his boss this week asking if he would work for a month without wages to keep the business afloat.

"We have always been loyal to our staff and now - in these testing times - we are asking for your help," said the letter sent by the family-owned firm.

Britain announced it would pay 80% of the wages of employees kept on the payroll but not working during the coronavirus pandemic but Jason was unsure if he would qualify as the measure only applied to firms where bosses had laid off workers.

"I don't have anything else to do right now and I want a job to return to ... so I'll have to decide what to do," he said.

There is little data on how many people around the world are being asked to work for free and those who are often refrain from speaking out for fear of angering bosses.

Self-employed people, gig workers and those working for small businesses are most vulnerable to exploitation, said Phil Bloomer, executive director of the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.


"There is growing fear that the pandemic is undermining workers' essential rights – even that of being paid a fair wage," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It's not just companies leaning heavily on staff.

Small hospitals in rural India have been asking medics to work without a salary according to Raghu Ram Pillarisetti, president of the Association of Surgeons of India.

Businesses may take advantage in other ways.

Staff at a travel agent in the British city of Bristol who agreed to take unpaid leave recount receiving emails from their bosses and being roped in to deal with an unprecedented number of refund requests for cancelled holidays and flights.

"The message from the boss is 'it's all hands on deck, and make or break for the company and your job'," said one of the employees of the travel agent who declined to be named.

In some cases, unemployed people are taking on free work to keep their resumes fresh and to learn new skills.

"I see it as a sign of dedication not desperation," said Lina Haddad, a freelance composer from New York who has been offering her services for free to struggling production houses.

Alexandra Levit, workplace expert and author of "How’d You Score That Gig?" recommended volunteering at non-profit organizations but warned against working for free.

"I think you have to be careful that you're not undervaluing yourself. If you do have the experience, then you should be paid for it," Levit said.

Some firms considered "essential businesses" like grocery stores, pharmacies and petrol stations have been applauded for improving conditions for staff in high demand.

Whole Foods' owner Amazon has raised pay by $2 dollars an hour, granted two weeks paid sick leave if staff test positive for COVID-19, and said it would hire 100,000 more employees.

Related stories: 

ANALYSIS-Cash in hand: Could basic income protect livelihoods in coronavirus crisis?

UK companies given break from reporting gender pay gap due coronavirus

Asia's street food hawkers struggle during coronavirus lockdowns

Job cut fears as fashion brands slash orders in Bangladesh with coronavirus

(Reporting by Tom Finn. Additional reporting by Roli Srivastava in Mumbai. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.