Will Work for Food? Is it Legal?

Will Work for Food? Is it Legal?
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Working for food is the ultimate compensation. It goes back to the “caveman days” where eating was the main goal of working, for, without food, no one can survive. However, is this legal compensation? If you were to work on a ranch, far, etc, can you be compensated with food or other compensation besides money?

There are times when one is in dire straits, and money itself will not suffice. This article will discuss the legalities pertaining to an individual performing work for compensation other than a base wage. There are certain areas of employment and contract law that differentiate between whether this is legal or not. The following article will cite state law regarding these distinctions.

The issue is whether someone can work for food rather than money or other goods of trade. Is this legal? If it is legal, are there only certain conditions whether it is legal? There are various state laws that pertain to this issue and legal question. For the purposes of this article, I will use California law that relates to working for food.

Rule of Law

The following statute within the California Labor Code, section 3353, pertains to this situation, and states the following:

“Independent contractor means any person who renders service for a specified recompense for a specified result, under the control of his principal as to the result of his work only and not as to the means by which such result is accomplished.”

The key phrase in this statute is “a specified recompense.” As an independent contractor, you are under your own control as to the METHOD of how you accomplish said “work.” As a general rule, you are not under the subservience as to how you do the job, what tools, you choose to use, etc. Now, there are certain provisions that the principal, (The one you are doing the work for, or providing the service for), that he or she can put into a contract.

For example, the principle may wish that you as the independent contractor perform computer work at his or her office, rather than a location selected by you as the independent contractor. In this case, there must be a contractual clause within the contract, agreed upon by both the principal and you, as the independent contractor that so states. In the absence of such a contract, the general rules pertaining to Independent Contractor-Principal relationship applies.


For the purposes of this article, we are discussing the question of compensation. Once we have answered the question as to whether there is an “employer-employee,” relationship, or an “independent contractor,” relationship, we can determine whether there are applicable laws related to compensation. This question was posed in S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v Dept. of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal.3d 341, and is now utilized as precedent in determining whether a said individual is an employee, or independent contractor.

In this particular case, the issue before the court was whether a group of farm laborers were operating under the control of the direct managers and owners of the farm, thereby entitled to workers compensation, or as independent contractors, dictating the method of how the job was to be accomplished, but not the end result of the job. The court concluded, based upon the facts of the case, that the farm laborers were consistently directed as to the method of production and work. This, in turn, classified them as employees, rather than independent contractors, and entitled to worker’s compensation under the law of California.

In an employee-employer relationship, there are federal and minimum wage laws that dictate an employee’s minimum compensation. Therefore, if an employee gives food to an employee in lieu of a wage, the employer has violated minimum wage laws, as no monetary compensation was forthcoming. Conversely, if the principal enters into a contractual agreement with the independent contractor in a type of, “will work for food,” agreement, then this type of contract satisfies the necessary elements with the state of California pertaining to “a specified recompense.”



While there are many versions and philosophies regarding employment law and how it pertains to compensation, it is vital if you are undertaking a job that is nontraditional in terms of compensation, expectations of each side, etc., that you research the law within your state. Laws can vary, and they are not all federally driven, so it is essential that you do your homework. Using search engines such as Google, yahoo, and others will yield websites directing you to various employment and state agencies that can save you many legal trouble, as well as money.