Designers, artists and other creatives are working for free for an average of 15.5 days a year – which is preventing many from being able to pay for basic living expenses. These are the findings of new research by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE) – a professional body for freelancers – and The Freelancer Club.

The IPSE's calculation is based both on professional-level work where the freelancer had agreed to work for free – including competitive  and where the client failed to pay.

The research makes for some pretty depressing reading. 54% of respondents to the online questionnaire had chosen to work for free in exchange for the promise of 'exposure'. 45% had agreed to free work for a 'reputable' brand. Worse, 20% though of working for free as standard industry practice, 34% found clients expected them to work for free, and 40% found themselves competing for jobs with people willing to work for free.

It's not explicit in the report, but one of the major reasons behind this is the emergence of sites like 99Designs – where multiple freelancers have to complete work before a client selects one of them (or none of them) and only the one selected gets paid.

The impact of working for free – willingly or unwillingly – is clear from the research. 45% of those surveyed couldn't afford work-related costs – with 40% having trouble paying bills and/or rent.

"It appears that many businesses think they can get away with not paying freelancers for their work," says IPSE chief executive Chris Bryce. "This practice is devaluing our creative industries. Government need to fast-track the appointment of a Small Business Commissioner, who can give people someone to turn to. We’re not talking about people donating their time to charities. If a business is profiting financially from someone’s work then they deserve to be paid.

The role of the Small Business Commissioner was created over a year ago after a public consultation, but has yet to be filled.

"If a big proportion of freelancers can’t continue working this way because the expectation is it shouldn’t involve pay, the whole of the UK loses out," continued Chris. "Our creative sectors contribute a vast amount to the public purse and we shouldn’t be limiting careers in these fields to those who can afford to go for significant periods without being paid for their efforts.”

And being unable to work as freelancers is a definite possibility for many – with 21% of respondents having to find full-time or part-time employment as well as (or instead of) freelancing.