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Prompt payment is an obligation, not a favour. Photo: Istock
Prompt payment is an obligation, not a favour. Photo: Istock

Freelancers don’t do it for free

Sohaila Abdulali on the perils of freelance pay

I write for love and to have a voice. But mostly, I write for money. Writing pays the bills, and paying the bills depends on my bills being paid on time. Too often, that doesn’t happen. And the bigger the client, the less efficient. Occasionally I work for a large UN agency that shall remain nameless. They usually pay within a couple of weeks, but one recent payment took five months after I billed them, and another took three; after an endless stream of emails from me asking for my money. Nothing quite equals the humiliation of repeatedly asking someone for money, even if it is your money.

Economists have studied the financial effects of money not going where it should on time. Interest gained, interest lost, etc. But I wonder if anyone’s researched the time, energy and emotion that goes into dealing with all the ripple effects of the delayed payment. In the case of the UN job, the interest hardly mattered: This is the US, where my checking account makes something like zero-point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one per cent. But lots of other things do matter.

First, I earned the money and was counting on having it. I was not going to starve without it, and didn’t need it to buy either gobi (cauliflower) or lifesaving medicine, but our family doesn’t have endless reserves. Also, my partner and I were trying to convince a bank to give us a mortgage, and I needed to show that I was employed. You just try convincing a banker that the cheque is in the mail, when they’re trying to figure out whether to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to you.

Then there was the subcontractor I hired to do part of the job. It seemed unfair to delay her payment because mine was late, so I paid her, further lowering my already unimpressive bank balance.

Then there was all the ridiculous agonizing I went through, straddling the fine line between keeping myself on the UN’s radar and becoming such a pain that they got irritated and wilfully delayed my payment. And there was the indignity of feeling like a beggar, and receiving either frigidly polite responses or no responses at all from the women who hired me. I don’t know why I stupidly assume women will be more sympathetic, but of course they’re not.

“And the worst thing is, you end up badgering the wrong people," my friend Cynthia points out. “You can only complain to one or two people, and they’re usually not the ones who are holding it up."

I was fine. The money came eventually. The bank, bless its trusting heart, gave us the mortgage. Gobi flowed unfettered into the kitchen. But this kind of thing takes up a huge part of the freelance life. While it’s true that I get to sit in the sunshine in my pyjamas and eat truffles and listen to loud music on a workday, it’s also true that I spend too much time asking for money that should have come already, and reading things like the email thread that the UN accounts department accidentally included in an attachment to me: “This is urgent! Consultant is really mad." You’d be mad, too, if your pay cheque was three months late, dear Ms. Diplomatic Immunity.

When you’re an individual who owes money to a company, you’re liable for charges if you’re late. If I pay my mobile bill one day past the grace period, I owe the company $5. The credit card company would charge me interest if I weren’t neurotically on time every month. A late electricity bill would affect my credit rating. But if someone is late paying me, often all I can do is complain. If I sent an overdue notice to the UN, whoever received it would probably have a hearty laugh and post it on their Facebook page as the joke of the day.

The irony is that I’ve hardly ever had trouble collecting from individuals—people like me, who do not have the vast monetary reserves that international organizations do, tend to quickly pay the person they hired to write a story or a leaflet or a report.

Most of you reading this in India have servants. Do you pay them on time? Does your maid have to ask for her money? If she does, that’s just wrong. And if her asking annoys you, that’s even more wrong. Remember W. Somerset Maugham: “He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: He wondered if they had ever tried to do without it."

Just as there’s no excuse for the UN to take months to pay me, there’s no excuse for those of us with nice homes and FDs and cash in the cupboard to ever, ever be a single day late in paying our domestic staff or our dress makers or the doodhwalla (milkman). I have had a relative’s mali (gardener) beg me for his monthly pay because his employer didn’t bother to pay him on time. Imagine not being able to pay your child’s school fees. Imagine having to ask for credit for your kerosene.

The US government has a Prompt Payment rule that mandates timely payments to contractors. In New York State, there are guidelines for how often different types of labour are paid. Prompt payment is an obligation, not a favour to consultants and employees, whoever they are: The person who manages your company, or the person who cooks your gobi.

The first of the month is coming. Let me end with some wisdom you can groove to, from Donna Summer:

She works hard for the money

So hard for it, honey

She works hard for the money

So you better treat her right.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

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