I've mentioned how California, New Jersey, and New York have, in the name of "saving" ill-treated workers, either passed or are looking to pass laws that can--in California's case, already have--undercut and punished self-employed businesspeople who work as independent contractors.

Not that the laws are totally out of touch. There are many cases of worker misclassification, where companies save themselves money by pushing costs and responsibilities onto workers who really aren't independent business owners. Those have to be addressed, though not at the cost of all the people who support families, put kids through college, paid taxes, purchased their own benefits packages, and otherwise run businesses that are important parts of their communities.

There is resting intersection between the two situations: people in the creative classes--photographers, writers, designers, artists, actors, musicians. Too many would-be employers looking for specialized help think they should be able to hire people for peanuts, whether in a freelance capacity or on staff.

They think a trio at a wedding reception is insane for charging $750 for the day and that $150 for three talented and skilled people for many hours of work, to say nothing of travel time, should suffice. They expect people to work for "exposure" or to support the client's business by slashing prices. Some want people to donate their work and get some promise of pay based on the popularity, like click-based compensation.

Can you imagine saying to a factory worker, "Oh, sorry, because people didn't choose the particular product we had you make, we can't pay you, even though we ordered it?"

Research out of Duke help explains why this happens. According to Aaron Kay, a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, it's a matter of perceived passion.

Requesting people to do demeaning tasks that have nothing to do with their job description or working additional hours without pay comes more easily when the worker is seen as "passionate" about what they do. There are a few aspect to this that help rationalize the actions of employers or clients:

  • People who perceive workers as passionate about their work make the assumption that the workers would have volunteered to do it for free if given the chance.
  • They assume that the work is its own reward, so why bother to pay someone if they're already satisfied?
  • When people see exploited workers, they also assume they must be passionate, otherwise why would they remain?

These are results that come from eight different studies with a total of 2.400 individuals.

The results offer an additional interpretation, as Kay explained in an article that Duke published:

"We want to see the world as fair and just," Kay said. "When we are confronted with injustice, rather than fix it, sometimes our minds tend to compensate instead. We rationalize the situation in a way that seems fair, and assume the victims of injustice must benefit in some other way."
For example, he said, "in past work with John Jost of NYU, I have found that when faced with massive disparities between rich and poor, people can downplay injustice by telling themselves that wealth brings its own set of problems, or that having less money makes it easier to be happy by keeping life simple."

In other words, we regularly lie to ourselves to pretend that the world is fair and reasonable. When we see people treated badly, or we ill treat people directly, it's easier and more comfortable to think that they want or deserve it somehow. Heaven forbid that we might challenge our own complicity and attitudes.

Published on: Jan 12, 2020
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