On speaker travel expenses, or, why enough is enough

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A couple of months ago my life fell apart in a morning. Being self-employed, I had two figures in the bank, which wasn’t enough to be able to afford a train ticket to safety; a kind soul bought me one. On that train to a safe place, still very much in shock, I put up a donation form and tweeted it. The funds that came in were literally the difference between having a roof over my head and sleeping rough.

The next day, having not slept at all, I had to take some of those funds and book a train, a hotel, and a flight. Not for safety or shelter, but for conference talks I’d already committed to giving, at conferences which do not cover speaker travel or accommodation.

If I’d had doubts in my mind about having to pay hundreds of pounds per year out of pocket just to do my job, that betrayal of those supporting me sealed the decision.

The day after that, I parked myself in a Waterstone’s cafe to show up for office hours for my contract and I got back to work.

Three weeks in hotels and four months in a filthy homeless unit then followed. I had no internet. I still turned up for my fucking job every day. Even if the people I was working for didn’t.

Fast forward a few months later. I’m in my new permanent home, out of homelessness. My new place, as fate would have it, is the home of my dreams, but it’s cost me. I lost all my furniture in the eviction, and I still don’t have my worldly possessions back. I’ve had to buy everything from scratch – dishes, the fridge, the bed, the table I’m sitting at, the hardware I needed to assemble them. My home doesn’t have floors either, just bare, stained, seriously squeaky floorboards covered in Ikea boxes, which my big feet trip on about once every five minutes. In short, I’ve got a lot more expenses coming up just within my four walls, and I need a job to pay for them. But in order to get money in, I have to put money out. A lot of it.

I had applied to speak to an international conference at a time when I thought I would still be in that contract to pay for it. As it turns out, I opted not to renew that contract, and rightly so. But it left me facing a £600 bill out of pocket for barely 48 hours abroad, to give a conference talk which absolutely needs to be given, when I’m just getting on my feet again.

We can’t go on like this. Any of us.

It’s not the conference’s fault, nor is it the fault of the stellar organising team. They actually agree with me on all of this. This is just the system we all work in.

I don’t really expect to be paid to speak; it’s only happened once.

But we work in an industry where you pay to get to where you want to speak, you pay to stay where you want to speak, and when you ask for help, you’re told that you’re “volunteering”.

I don’t think I have to present my credentials as a speaker. My daughter even jokes with me, “are you going to be in the country at the end of the week?”, the punchline being the moment of fleeting panic where I genuinely wonder if I am.

Those credentials qualify me to call bullshit on the official line that putting a measurable percentage of your income as a self-employed individual back into travel and accommodation is “volunteering”.

Here’s why.

The exact same talk. Two people. One is employed as a remote worker by an agency. The other is a self-employed woman (who doesn’t want to be self-employed, but that’s another story) who has just come out of homelessness (hello).

The first one has their travel and accommodation covered. As a salaried employee, their time for research, preparation, and delivery is covered. They also get paid holidays, sick pay, insurance, and a weeklong company gathering in the sun a few times a year. Their company enthusiastically tweets and blogs about their talk.

The second one hasn’t had a paid sick day or holiday since 2005, has to take on wee jobs they really don’t like to pay the bills, and their slides are perpetually late because they’re constantly having to beg around for money to be able to present them. No company promotes their talk. Sometimes, in fact, companies they’re contracting for troll it.

The first one’s conference talk is a business trip.

The second one’s conference talk is “volunteering”.

Exact same talk.

The taxman wouldn’t buy it. Why do we?

No project, whatever their organisational structure or ethos, has the right to define who is and who is not a professional based on how they pay their bills. No project has the right to imply that you are working against it by asking for support. And no project has the right to imply that the stress caused to you by their rules on funding are in fact a mental health issue, and that you should go look after your “wellbeing” instead.

So to bring this story full circle, PHP Yorkshire – where I spoke earlier this year on PBD, and hope to speak at again next year – has agreed to sponsor my expenses to get to next week’s talk.

This is how dysfunctional the ecosystem has become. Conferences which pay for speaker travel are paying for speakers to get to conferences which don’t.

Controversial? Yes. A controversy we need to have? Absolutely.

I can’t wait to get there next week. I’m going to love it. I’m looking forward, in particular, to discussing opportunities to work in tech policy and advocacy on behalf of the projects and companies in attendance, so that I can actually do the work I want to do rather than constantly scouting for expenses.

I think we’ll all be better off for it.

So going forward, if you want me to speak, you’re going to need to get me there.

Of course I value your project, and your ethos, and your community. But from now on, I value myself more.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.

1 Comment

  1. take your scenario of the employed vs. the freelancer to the very end: we will have mainstreamed, enterprise driven narratives of the open source projects instead of various, diverse and maybe even controverse aspects, which can bring forward any project.

    Your demand is right, but we (esp. OS communities) should find better solutions than having speakers to beg.

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