As Trump’s shutdown (or Pelosi’s, if you prefer) continues, some federal workers have been ordered to work without pay. To illustrate, TSA and Coast Guard personnel are now protecting America while receiving no pay. This raises the moral question of whether it is ethical to compel federal workers to work without pay. It is important to note that the ethics are distinct from the legality of unpaid labor. That is a matter for the courts to sort out based on how they read the rules.
One sensible starting point is to consider that federal workers agreed to work without pay when they accepted their jobs—that this occurs is well known and is presumably even spelled out somewhere. Since the workers accepted the jobs, they consented to work without pay—thus making it ethical to force them to work without pay. This must, of course, assume that the workers signed the contracts without duress and with full knowledge that they would be required to work without pay under certain conditions. If the workers were not properly informed of this or the contracts were accepted under duress, then they would have no moral obligation to obey such a forced or fraudulent agreement. That said, there is still the concern about what people can ethically agree to.
Philosophers have, of course, considered whether there are limits to what people can agree to. For example, it has been argued that a person cannot freely agree to become the property of another—because it is unethical to own people, because the ownership of one’s self is nontransferable, or for a variety of other reasons. As such, it is worth considering whether a person can agree to work for free, even when doing so might harm them.
One way to approach this matter is to consider the fact that people do agree to work for free. A good example is volunteer work: this unpaid labor is extremely common and is not only acceptable, but often worthy of praise. As such, it would be absurd to claim that it is wrong for people to agree to work for free. But what if someone is compelled to work for free? That is, what if they cannot quit the job and are thus forced to work for free? This would seem to be something that a person cannot ethically agree to—they are, in effect, agreeing to a form of slavery in which they must work, are not paid and cannot quit. Even if they were paid, it would still be a form of slavery—after all, the key aspect of slavery is not working without compensation, it is the lack of freedom. Not being compensated simply makes it worse. As such, federal workers should be free to quit immediately and without any consequences—otherwise the state would be claiming a right to enslave citizens, which is morally wicked.
It might be argued that those who entered into long term agreements with the state, such as a term of service, are obligated to stay in the job and quitting because they are not getting paid would be wrong. While this has some appeal, this would require accepting that a person can, morally, be locked into working without compensation even when doing so would be extremely harmful to them. This would seem to expect far too much of people. Naturally, it could be countered that if they freely entered into a long-term agreement that included the possibility of working without pay, then they are obligated to stick to that agreement—even if they are harmed. After all, a contract is a contract.
While this does seem sensible, it also seems sensible to argue that such agreements should not include the no-pay possibility. That is, it is immoral for this to be included in agreements of this sort—even if people agree to accept the terms. As such, federal workers should always be paid for their work or allowed to terminate their agreements with no harmful consequences being imposed. After all, no one has the right to expect people to labor for free and to demand that would be immoral.