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Should Work Pay?

Color photograph of Haines Hall at UCLA, a large red brick building with lots of Romanesque arches

“The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA seeks applications for an assistant adjunct professor,” begins a recent job listing, “on a without salary basis. Applicants must understand there will be no compensation for this position.”

The listing has provoked significant backlash. Many academics have condemned the job as exploitative. They have also noted the hypocrisy of UCLA’s stated support of “equality” while expecting a highly qualified candidate with a Ph.D. to work for free. For context, UCLA pays a salary of $4 million to its head men’s basketball coach, Mick Cronin.

UCLA has now responded to the growing criticism, pointing out:

These positions are considered when an individual can realize other benefits from the appointment that advance their scholarship, such as the ability to apply for or maintain grants, mentor students and participate in research that can benefit society. These arrangements are common in academia.

It is certainly true that such arrangements are fairly common in academia. But are they ethical?

The university’s ethical argument is that the unpaid worker receives significant compensation other than pay. For example, having worked at a prestigious university might advance one’s career in the longer term – adding to their “career capital.” The implication is that these benefits are significant enough that the unpaid job is not exploitative.

Similar arguments are given by organizations that offer unpaid internships. The training, mentoring, and contacts an intern receives can be extremely valuable to those starting a new career. Some unpaid internships for prestigious companies or international organizations are generally regarded to be so valuable for one’s career that they are extremely competitive, sometimes receiving hundreds of applications for each position.

Employers point out that without unpaid internships, there would be fewer internships overall. Companies and organizations simply do not have the money to pay for all these positions. They argue that the right comparison is not between unpaid and paid internships, but between unpaid internships and nothing. This might explain why so many well-known “progressive” organizations offer unpaid positions despite publicly disavowing the practice. For example, the U.N. has famously competitive unpaid internships, as does the U.K.’s Labour Party, a left-wing political party whose political manifesto promises to ban unpaid internships, and whose senior members have compared the practice to “modern slavery.” Not long ago, the hashtag #PayUpChuka trended when Chuka Umunna, a Labour Member of Parliament, was found to have hired unpaid interns for year-long periods.

Besides the sheer usefulness of these jobs, there is also a libertarian ethical case for unpaid positions. If the workers are applying for these jobs, they are doing so because they are choosing to. They must think the benefits they receive are worth it. How could it be ethical to ban or prevent workers from taking jobs they want to take? “It shouldn’t even need saying,” writes Madeline Grant, “but no one is forced to do an unpaid internship. If you don’t like them, don’t take one—get a paid job, pull pints, study, go freelance—just don’t allow your personal preferences to interfere with the freedoms of others.”

On the other side of the debate, the opponents of unpaid jobs argue that the practice is inherently exploitative. The first Roman fire brigade was created by Marcus Licinius Crassus:

Crassus created his own brigade of 500 firefighters who rushed to burning buildings at the first cry for help. Upon arriving at the fire, the firefighters did nothing while their Crassus bargained over the price of their services with the property owner. If Crassus could not negotiate a satisfactory price, the firefighters simply let the structure burn to the ground.

Any sensible homeowner would accept almost any offer from Crassus, so long as it was less than the value of the property. The homeowner would choose to pay those prices for Crassus’ services. But that doesn’t make it ethical. It was an exploitative practice – the context of the choice matters. Likewise, employers may find workers willing to work without compensation. But that willingness to work without compensation could be a sign of the worker’s desperation, rather than his capacity for autonomous choice. If you need to have a prestigious university like UCLA on your C.V. to have an academic career, and if you can’t get a paid position, then you are forced to take an unpaid adjunct professorship.

Critics of unpaid jobs also point out that such practices deepen economic and social inequality. “While internships are highly valued in the job market,” notes Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, “research also shows that 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid. As a result, only young people from the most privileged backgrounds end up being eligible for such roles. For those from marginalized communities, this deepens the generational wealth gap and actively obstructs their path to equal opportunity.” Not everyone can afford to work without pay. If these unpaid positions are advantageous, as their defenders claim, then those advantages will tend to go toward those who are already well-off, worsening inequality.

There are also forms of unpaid work which are almost universally seen as ethical: volunteering, for instance. Very few object to someone with some spare time and the willingness to help a charity, contribute to Wikipedia, or clean up a local park. The reason for this is that volunteering generally lacks many of the ethical complications associated with other unpaid jobs and internships. There are exceptions; some volunteer for a line on their C.V. But volunteering tends to be done for altruistic reasons rather than for goods like career capital and social connections. This means that there is less risk of exploitation of the volunteers. Since volunteers do not have to worry about getting a good reference at the end of their volunteering experience, they are also freer to quit if work conditions are unacceptable to them.

On the ethical scale, somewhere between unpaid internships and volunteering are “hidden” forms of unpaid work that tend to be overlooked by economists, politicians, and society more generally. Most cooking, cleaning, shopping, washing, childcare, and caring for the sick and disabled represents unpaid labor.

Few consider these forms of unpaid work as directly unethical to perform or request family members to help carry out. But it is troubling that those who spend their time doing unpaid care work for the sick and disabled are put at a financial disadvantage compared to their peers who choose to take paid forms of work instead. An obvious solution is a “carer’s allowance,” a government payment, paid for by general taxation, to those who spend time each week taking care of others. A very meager version of this allowance (roughly $100/week) already exists in the U.K.

These “hidden” forms of unpaid work also have worrying implications for gender equality, as they are disproportionately performed by women. Despite having near-equal representation in the workforce in many Western countries, women perform the majority of unpaid labor, a phenomenon referred to as the “double burden.” For example, an average English female 15-year-old is expected, throughout her life, to spend more than two years longer performing unpaid caring work compared to the average male 15-year-old. This statistic is no exception. The Human Development Report, studying 63 countries, found that 31% of women’s time is spent doing unpaid work, as compared to 10% for men. A U.N. report finds that, in developed countries, women spend 3:30 hours a day on unpaid work and 4:39 hours on paid work. In comparison, men spend only 1:54 hours on unpaid work, and 5:42 on paid work. Finding a way to make currently unpaid work pay, such as a carer’s allowance, could also be part of the solution to this inequality problem.

Is unpaid work ethical? Yes, no, and maybe. Unpaid work covers a wide bandwidth on the ethical spectrum. At one extreme, there are clear cases of unpaid work which are morally unproblematic, such as altruistically volunteering for a charity or cooking yourself a meal. And, at the other extreme, there are cases where unpaid work is clearly unethical exploitation: cases of work that ought to be paid but where employers take advantage of their workers’ weak bargaining positions to deny them the financial compensation to which they are morally entitled. And many cases of unpaid work fall somewhere between these two extremes of the moral spectrum. In thinking about these cases, we have no alternative but to look in close detail at the specifics: at the power dynamics between the employers and the employees, the range and acceptability of the options that were available to workers, and the implications for equality.

Do Women’s Soccer Players Deserve Equal Pay for Equal Play?

photograph of stands at women's world cup match

The popularity of women’s soccer is growing rapidly. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France is being watched by record-breaking numbers of people around the world. 10.9 million people in France watched the hosts opening match against South Korea, far above the previous record of 4.12 million for a women’s soccer game. In the United Kingdom, 6.1 million people watched the match between England and Scotland. Similarly, in the United States, viewing figures have risen by 11% from the previous World Cup in 2015, even though the matches are played at a less convenient time for American audiences. 

Off the pitch though, women footballers continue to struggle for fair treatment from footballing authorities. One high-profile area of protest is the issue of prize money. The winners of this year’s World Cup will receive $4 million dollars in prize money, more than double the amount for the winners of the 2015 competition. An impressive figure, we might think, until we compare it to the $38 million received by the winners of the men’s World Cup in 2018. In total, FIFA has set aside $30 million in prize money for the Women’s competition compared to $400 million for last year’s men’s competition. 

The issue of gender inequality becomes even worse when we consider differences in pay. The 2017 Sporting Intelligence Survey found that the gender pay gap in football is particularly extreme compared to other sports. To take two clear examples, the average first-team player in the (men’s) English Premier League received £2.64 million in 2017, while the average pay for a player in the equivalent women’s league, the FA Women’s Super League, was just £26,752, while the total pay for all players in the top seven women’s leagues was roughly equal to the pay for just one male footballer, Neymar at Paris St-Germain. As Martha Kelner, chief sports reporter for The Guardian, points out, these figures suggest, “football is perhaps the most unequal profession in the world.” 

In response many women’s national teams have demanded for this pay gap to be eliminated or at least reduced. The US Women’s team are currently involved in a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation over ‘institutionalized gender discrimination’ and demanding to be paid the same as the men’s team. Similarly, the Danish team refused to play in a friendly match in 2017 in protest over their pay and conditions, while the Scottish team implemented a brief media blackout in a similar protest in 2017. There have also been some notable successes. In 2017 the Norwegian FA introduced equal pay for their men and women’s teams, while the Dutch FA recently agreed to introduce equal pay by 2023

Are national associations morally required to pay their men and women’s soccer teams the same amount? As I have argued elsewhere (together with my colleague Martine Prange) there are three different arguments to support such a duty. Most straightforwardly, we might see the gender pay gap in soccer as a case of gender discrimination. The US team have been pushing this kind of argument in their campaign for Equal Pay for Equal Play. As star-player Carli Lloyd put the point, she and her teammates were, “sick of being treated like second-class citizens.” Feminist campaigners around the world have long argued that men and women working in the same job or equivalent jobs should be paid the same. Paying women less than men for the same work is unjust gender discrimination and is morally wrong. Given that women’s soccer players are being paid less than their male equivalents for playing for their national teams, this seems like a clear case of wrongful discrimination.  

However, this argument has been met with fierce resistance by some commentators. Writing about the decision of the Norwegian FA to introduce equal pay, journalist Matthew Syed claimed, “Norwegian male footballers are effectively doing a different job. In economic terms, they are more productive, persuading more fans and TV viewers to watch them, and more companies to sponsor them.” According to Syed, the different levels of revenue generated by the two different teams means that their work should not be viewed as the same or even equivalent. This means that paying these two teams differently is not an instance of discrimination; it is simply a reflection of the differing commercial value of the two teams. 

While many find this form of response persuasive, it cannot be used to justify all of soccer’s gender pay gaps. In the case of the US women’s team, there simply does not seem to be any good reason to think that the women’s team generates less revenue than the men’s. After winning the World Cup in 2015, the US women’s football team generated a $6.6 million profit compared to the men’s team’s $2 million. In the three years following, more total revenue has been generated from the women’s team’s matches than from those of the men’s team. Despite this, the women’s team continues to be paid less than the men’s team. At least in this case, there seems little reason to accept that the lower level of pay is a reflection of the lower levels of revenue generated and the charge of discrimination seems fair. 

However, the case of the US Women’s team is something of an exception. At most national soccer associations, the men’s team generates more revenue than the women. Some may take this to be the end of the discussion. If the different levels of pay simply a reflect the different levels of revenue generated then there does not seem to be any discrimination going on. And if it is not discriminatory then we may think that there is no moral requirement to pay women’s teams the same as men’s. 

This conclusion, though, assumes that avoiding discrimination is the only ethical reason that could support equal pay for women’s footballers. This is a mistake. A different ethical reason in favor of equal pay is that this action would be valuable for what it would express about the value of women’s soccer. This thought seems to underlie at least some of the recent moves towards equal pay. As the President of the Norwegian Players’ Association, Joachim Walltin, said of his association’s decision to introduce equal pay: “it was actually the FA’s own idea to go for equality. They said: ‘Isn’t it a cool idea and wouldn’t it be a good signal if we did things equally?’” The idea here is that by paying both sets of players the same, national associations would send a message that men’s and women’s football are equally valuable. This would be a positive message to send and may help to improve how people view women’s soccer. 

While this does seem like a positive message, some might object that it does not provide any reason to think there is a moral duty for associations to move to equal pay. Yes this would be a nice thing to do but would it really be wrong to keep paying men’s players more? Wouldn’t it also be acceptable to continue to pay male players more in order to reflect their higher commercial value? The positive message in itself might not seem to provide a sufficiently strong reason to think there is any moral obligation here. 

The case that there is a duty for national associations to move to equal pay becomes much stronger when we consider the role that national football associations have played in frustrating the development of women’s football. In England, for example, around 150 women’s soccer teams existed in 1921 with high-profile matches attracting tens of thousands of people. One especially high-profile match between Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helen Ladies attracted 53,000 spectators with an estimated 14,000 more people unable to gain entry into the ground. By the end of the following year however, the English Football Association responded by banning women’s football from their members’ grounds. Their reason? That, “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and it ought not to be encouraged.” The English FA was far from alone in this. Similar bans on women’s football were introduced in France, West Germany, Brazil, and the Netherlands among others. 

The role these associations have played in frustrating the development of women’s football means that they cannot straightforwardly appeal to the lower commercial value of women’s football in justifying lower pay. One reason for this is that their actions are in large part responsible for this lower commercial value. If these associations had not banned women’s football then the commercial value of women’s football would likely be much higher than it is today. Another reason is that this history should change how we view the moral reasons favoring equal pay. The reasons that associations have are not simply ones concerning what it would be nice or good for them to do. Rather they owe duties of reparation to the women’s game to try to make up for the historical injustice these associations have committed against women’s football and women footballers. Those associations that have committed such injustices have a duty to attempt to make amends. What clearer way of doing so than to commit to equal pay for women’s footballers and sending the message that men’s football and women’s football are equally valuable?