Exploitation of Writers: Fact or Fiction

Something that is a fairly hot topic among certain circles in the Internet community of freelance writers is the concept of livable wages, or the amount of money an individual needs to make in order to pay their cost of living. As you know from the vast majority of my posts, I have a vested interest in the concept because I primarily focus on writing tips for those individuals who understand the global market, and have a global mentality. Those of us who are working abroad, living abroad, or traveling frequently understand that the concept of livable wage is a 20th century concept, prior to the advent of global Internet. Livable wage was a concept tied directly to local markets, back before local included the entire developed world.

You see, livable wage depends entirely upon where you live. I’ve discussed this in other posts in the past when talking about why publishers in New York, for example, can afford to pay their writers a higher rate than a publication out of Dubai, for example, or even from St. Louis. The cost of living is so dramatically different between locations that there is no such things as standardized rates.

Standardized rates can only exist in a world where there is a baseline minimum wage and cost of living that is the same for every single person in the world. There isn’t. Global currency is nothing more than a dream, something we will never see in our lifetime. Maybe for the next generation or two down the road, but nowhere in our future.

With that in mind, you will see a lot of freelancers from the US talking about exploitative wages paid by certain content companies or certain clients. These writers will make broad, generalized claims that such and such company is using slave labor, that they are paying less than minimum wage, that they are somehow oppressing writers and forcing them to work for peanuts and sawdust.

If you have been following my blog here at the website for any length of time you know I not only work for traditional clients, but I also do some content writing from time to time above and beyond my client’s needs. In addition, I also write short fiction, and recently founded a speculative fiction magazine. I am also backing my wife’s ongoing crafting business. In short, I have a lot of irons in the fire and my fingers are in a lot of different pies. Freelance writing is not the only thing I do for a living; rather, it is simply the main source of income.

With my recent content writing experiment I took the time to set out and prove a point: that anyone, regardless of level of skill, could walk into a content writing site like Demand Studios and make better than middle management wages. If you have been following the experiment (week 3’s results were just posted last week) for any length of time you will see that the overall goal of the experiment was to prove that anyone can walk in and make a minimum of 50 dollars an hour writing for content sites…provided that the individuals in question understand how to write that kind of content. We are talking about short blurb articles that focus on the types of articles like How To do something, About something, or a Strategy about something. 400-500 word blurbs that require little/no effort, and are meant to be “disposable” content.

Do I think content writing for sites like Demand Studios is a long-term thing? Personally, no. Eventually there will be so much disposable content on the web that the saturation effect will set in, and rates will either drop dramatically or there won’t be any content left to write about. However, I’ve always subscribed to the Richard Branson concept of business. The Virgin brand is not limited to an airline. It encompasses trans, planes, cell phones, a music label, a space program, and much, much more. He has a lot of fingers in a lot of different pies. For writers utilizing content sites, it’s a great way to get fast results and big paychecks for almost no effort.

I do, however, think that the claims made by a select group of individuals regarding the “below minimum wage” prices that content sites pay is a blanket statement that should be refined. Yes, there are certain places out there which pay rates I wouldn’t personally work for…but I can’t say the same thing for someone living in Pakistan, India, mainland China, or Mexico, for example. You see, minimum wage isn’t a transferable concept. What is minimum wage to one person living in X part of the world is not the same as the minimum wage of a person living in Y. Their livable wages are vastly different because they live in two different parts of the world.

Looking specifically at Demand Studios and the other content site I used for the experiment, and the three weeks of results I have so far, I showed how I was able to make upper management wages (according to the United State’s Department of Labor statistics) solely using content sites. I also showed how even the slowest writer out there will make around 15 dollars an hour (a claim backed up by the management of Demand Studios, who show how their average writers make between 15 and 30 dollars an hour), which you should note is more than double the federal minimum wage in the United States at its lowest level, only 3 dollars an hour less than the NATIONAL AVERAGE as posted by the Department of Labor (just over 18 dollars an hour as of the 2nd quarter 2009; that’s down from just over 21 dollars an hour in 2007, and the US Census website showed a 3.6 percent drop in household median).

As you can see, at the higher end of the average posted by the people behind Demand Studios, their writers are averaging 30 dollars an hour, which as you can see from the numbers posted in my Week 3’s results in regards to the median wage of middle management across the nation, is 5 dollars an hour MORE than the highest-paid middle management individual in America making 50k a year for 25 dollars an hour, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

Not to mention, the US Dollar is still ranked fairly high on the exchange rate platform, although it’s still lower than the GBP, and has been replaced worldwide by the Euro as the most stable currency. What that means is that minimum wage for individuals in the United States is still double, triple, quadruple, and in some cases even more, than the minimum wage in many countries around the world.

Going back to the concept of livable wage, that translates directly into this: if the minimum wage is X in the United States, but multiplies by x2, 3, 4, or more in other countries, that minimum wage suddenly becomes middle management wages (or more) to an individual living in Mexico, or other places in the world.

As you can see, the concept of livable wages as most of these so-called professionals would have you think is flawed. Since there are no standardized wages or costs of living around the world, livable wages are determined entirely by the country where someone is living.

So, looking at content sites like Demand Studios, how exactly are they exploiting writers? Looking specifically at writers from the Unites States, and the numbers I have physically proven with my writing experiment, not to mention the numbers posted by the US Department of Labor, how is making middle-to-upper management wages in any way exploitative?

Think about it. Is 40-60 USD an hour exploitative? Are those wages oppressive?

The fact of the matter is simple. There is no exploitation going on. There is no oppression. When a person chooses to write for a content company they are making a choice, and that choice is solely up to the individual in question. One person might only be able to make 15 dollars an hour using content sites, while someone like me can make 60-75 dollars an hour. Am I making a better “livable wage” than another person? It depends ENTIRELY upon where that person is living in the world, what their cost of living is, and what their circumstances are. I cannot claim to make any statements about whether or not the rate of pay is exploitative for that individual because I am not in their shoes. For them, that 15 dollars an hour could very well be the equivalent of the 60-75 dollars an hour that I can make using solely content sites. I simply cannot make that call.

The next time someone makes a blanket statement about rates, think about the whole picture before you agree or disagree.

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

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6 comments on “Exploitation of Writers: Fact or Fiction
  1. Lucy Smith says:

    Interesting post. Of course there’s no oppression. Nobody’s putting a gun to anyone’s head. Sure, there may be better ways of going about things, but people have to figure that out for themselves and chase their own dreams their way.

    However, something to remember is that it may be possible to earn middle-management money on Demand Studios, but how well they pay has to be defined according US ‘livable wage’ – since they, and some other content sites, don’t accept writers outside the US. So you can’t really talk about DS rates based on what they might mean to someone in Mexico or India, because they won’t be writing for them anyway.

    Being in New Zealand, I can get away with charging competitive rates to clients in the US because, by the time it’s converted into our dollars, it’s not bad at all. The problem is when the US dollar creeps up and you get less bang for your buck.

  2. It’s the same for me living in Bulgaria, Lucy. The USD ranges from 1.3 to 1.5 in the conversion rates. When it’s 1.5 I’m loving life, but when it creeps down to 1.3 it’s not always so hot. But it’s definetely one of the benefits of living here and getting paid in USD. I’m even happier when I get paid in Euro, and getting paid in GPB is always the best, because it can range as high as 2.8/2.9.

    As far as writers not having access to Demand Studios…it only applies if you aren’t a US citizen/resident. I’m a US citizen, and I don’t live in the States, but I write for Demand Studios because I’m a tax-paying citizen. So while I understand your comment, the fact is there are actually plenty of content sites out there which do offer writing opportunities to global writers, paying similar rates to Demand Studios, which is why I use them as a basis of comparison.

    However, even *if* the writers using Demand Studios are living in the United States, by the admission of the owners of Demand Studios their average earners make between 15 and 30 USD per hour. As you can see from the Department of Labor, CareerBliss, the US Census site, and the other sources I pulled, 30 dollars an hour is 5 dollars an hour MORE than the highest paid middle-management employee in America, making 25 dollars an hour for 50k a year. That is *far* beyond the “livable wage”. In fact, the lowest paid employee at Demand Studios makes 15 dollars an hour which, while a low wage, is still within the livable wage bracket for US citizens. In fact, if you look at the numbers from the 2nd quarter 2009, the average US citizen is making just over 18 dollars an hour…just 3 dollars above and beyond what the lowest paid employee at Demand Studios makes. Which means the lowest paid employee at DS is making just about the same amount as the regular US citizen working an 8 hour a day, full time job requiring a college degree and 3-4 years experience.

    The proof, as they say, is definitely in the pudding.

  3. Kimberly says:

    Interesting post. When I first started out freelancing, I worked for a content site that provided consistent work which padded my income nicely while I worked to get more private clients. Many writers love writing for places like Demand Studios because it’s much less stressful than querying businesses, bidding for work and trolling the job boards. They pick what they want to write, submit and wait for payment. Many writers write exclusively for sites like these and make a “full-time” living easily.

    I do, however, agree with your theory that eventually the web will become saturated with so-so content. Of course this leads to another reality associated with content sites; and that is that they have a reputation of suddenly running out of work or shutting down unexpectedly. This doesn’t seem to be anything Demand Studios writers should worry about right now. The fact that they are constantly hiring is a good sign.

  4. Anne Wayman says:

    You know I agree with you… what I do wonder about is if wages ’round the world will become the same… will US cost of living drop, China’s get higher until we eventually have similarity.

    Doubt I’ll live that long but I think about it.

  5. Personally, I don’t see Demand Studios slowing down anytime soon, Kimberly. They are actively looking into launching an international team of writers in the near future, which means they are only looking to expand further. While I do think eventually things will get over-saturated, I personally think it will be another 3-5 years, and in the meantime there’s a lot of money to be made on that disposable content. I’m definitely on the bandwagon. I use DS regularly in between other clients. As you can see from my Writing Experiment, I regularly make 60+ dollars an hour using Demand Studios, which is phenomenal.

  6. It’s a frightening concept. I honestly think it would take more than a hundred years to make it work, however. Just looking at Greece and Spain, for example…each one of those countries took 15-20 years before their currency changes finally balanced out, and when you look at a global currency…it would take several generations to even out all the kinks.

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