FREELANCING Jobs Without Borders
As American companies keep outsourcing almost every other job to Asian countries, such jokes are all over the web.
Now read this true story:
Unbeknownst to his bosses, Bob, a high profile web developer for Verizon, the US telecommunication giant, hired a Chinese freelancer to do his job for a fraction of what he made a year. While the freelancer was working his tail off 9 to 5, Bob watched cat videos and shopped online. He would roll in at 9 am and surf Reddit, a social networking site. At 12:00 he would grab some lunch. After lunch it was time to shop online at ebay and then some 'facetime' on his iphone with his girlfriend. At 4:30, he would send an email to his boss describing his 'accomplishments' for the day, and around 5, he would slide out.
Life was beautiful for Bob. Until it wasn't.
He got caught.
Many large companies in developed countries like the US, UK and Australia turn to outsourcing to cut costs, increase efficiency and reduce risks. Researching and editing books, consultancy, computer programming, web design, legal work, medical transcription, tax preparation, content development, mobile apps development, SEO (search engine optimisation), data entry, logo design or music video production—there isn't any job anymore that is not outsourced. You do not have to be a geek to be a freelancer— you can be a writer, an HR consultant, or an engineer.
If you go to the restaurant opposite Russel Square by Dhanmondi Lake in the evening, chances are you will see a well dressed gentleman in his early thirties drinking coffee and working on his laptop.
Meet Sajib Sarkar, a web based software developer who works as a freelancer at oDesk.com, one of the world's largest online workplace. Currently he is working for mylearningplan.com, a USA based project which, in collaboration with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, develops software for teachers' training and evaluation in the US and around the world. A graduate of computer science from AIUB in 2006, he quit his job as a software developer in a foreign company in Dhaka to become a full time freelancer in 2010. “The traditional office job is not for me. Several times a year, I pack my bag and go to neighbouring countries. I travel and work.” says Sarkar. If this is starting to sound like a dream job, it's because it is. He makes about USD 6000 or Tk 480,000 a month.
So what do you do if you want to become a freelancer?
All you need is a computer, a fast internet connection and a skill that sells.
Freelancer.com, oDesk and Elance are some of the most popular online marketplaces where companies hire freelancers like Sajib Sarkar.
First, create a profile for free to get noticed. Include your key skills, your portfolio, job history and a photo. Companies invite you to submit proposals for jobs. Respond with an offer and get hired. When the client awards you the job, the client will deposit the money in your account on the marketplace (Freelancer.com, oDesk.com, Elance.com). Then you accept the job. When the job is done, the client releases the money. From there the money goes to your bank account via Bangladesh Bank.
Popular as lancerboy1206 (his online identity) in the world of online workplaces, Ali Asgar, a social media marketing expert, is ranked one of the top 100 freelancers in the world. The ranking is based on earnings and performance. His first job was Facebook advertising at freelancer.com in 2010. His US client was so happy with his performance that he gave him 5 out of 5 in all 5 categories of his performance evaluation. Asgar enjoys the freedom and financial security this job gives him. “I make more than Tk 100,000 per month. Ninety percent of my customers are from the US. So I have to work at night considering the time difference. I don't mind because at night, the internet is a bit
faster,” says Asgar.
Old geographic boundaries have vanished with the global rise of low cost computing and internet communications, reinforcing David Ricardo's 1817 theory of comparative advantage, the Magna Carta of international economics that says free trade allows economies to benefit from efficiencies of global specialisation. A freelancer can now work for a US or UK company sitting in his remote village in Bangladesh. Although relatively new in freelancing, Bangladeshi workers have already made their mark in international markets.
Md Ashrafur Rahman, Assistant Programme Manager, Bangladesh Association of Software & Information Services (BASIS) says, “ To promote freelancing all over the country, we have given awards to 64 freelancers from 64 districts for their outstanding performances in such categories as web design, logo design, search engine optimisation etc.”
Shahorina Yesmin, a web developer (a programmer who specialises in web based applications) lived in UK while her husband studied for his Masters degree. After coming back home, her husband encouraged her to sign up for freelancing at oDesk.com. For 5 hours of work every day, she makes USD1000-1200 a month. “Being a new mother, I could not go back to work right away after having the baby. But at this job I can,” says Yesmin.
Every month thousands of Bangladeshis are joining these freelancing websites and finding work that see them earning way more than they would in regular jobs. Matt Cooper, Vice President of oDesk who visited Bangladesh in 2012 writes in an article, “Bangladesh has a fascinating story on oDesk. In 2009, Bangladesh accounted for only 2 percent of the total hours worked on oDesk. Today, it accounts for 10 percent, making Bangladesh the number 3 country for freelancers, behind only the Philippines and India.”
The challenge however, for the Bangladeshi freelancers is that while there are willing workers at the entry level, outsourced middle management is still scarce. Martin Conboy, Director of theOutsourcing-guide.com and formerly president of Australian Business Process Outsourcing Association says via email, “I am sure that there are many other things to consider including business grade English skills, and cross cultural training to improve 'soft skills' that need to be addressed very quickly so that Bangladesh can move forward while its window of opportunity is open.” Martin has visited Bangladesh several times and advocates the promotion of freelancing in Bangladesh.
Some freelancers complain that getting paid is a hassle because a lot of clients want to pay via PayPal, a global online money transfer service and PayPal does not operate in Bangladesh. Ali Asgar, says, “I have not had any problem. Sometimes I use Payoneer debit card which you have to apply for online. Once you receive the card by mail, activate it and load your money on the debit card which you can use at any ATM in the city.”
The government through Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has trained 9,000 people on freelancing skills such as SEO, animation, graphics, video editing etc. By September, they will train 15,000 people. It is completely free. “The ministry has taken another project through which we will train people to become freelance entrepreneurs", says Md. Nazrul Islam Khan popularly known as N I Khan, Secretary of Ministry of ICT, widely known as a pioneer of promoting ICT in Bangladesh. "The training module will include skills in advanced IT, business and communicative English. Our goal is to develop 30,000 entrepreneurs. We will also provide training on apps development.” Under his leadership the ministry persuaded oDesk to send freelancers' pay directly to their local bank accounts.
Mohammad Ashraf Hossain who is ranked no 1 in both oDesk and Elance opened a profile in oDesk in 2008. In 2010 he got a job from a client in UK for a hundred dollars. That was the start. Now for 35 hours' work a week, he makes between Tk 1 lakh to 4 lakh every month. He works in Microsoft SharePoint—a content management system for managing documents of an office.
Freelancing comes with a lot of freedom. There is no boss or peer pressure. You decide which projects to accept. You decide when to work. And you get rewarded according to your performance. “When I worked for a local company sometimes my boss did not properly evaluate me I did not feel motivated. Now I can work with SharePoint and Microsoft 365 which is my area of expertise. ,” says Hossain.
However, it does not offer the 'job security' that comes along with a conventional job. “If a company fires me, they have to give me a month's notice. But at freelancing, there is no such thing as a termination notice. Here the mantra is: put your effort and make money. I have to perform at the top level all the time,” adds Hossain.
Rajat Chakraborty was making good money freelancing when he was a student of mechanical engineering at Rajshahi University of Engineering and Technology. Upon graduation, he decided to do it full time. He works in content development---the process of writing and editing information for publication on web pages. He also works in SEO or Search Engine Optimisation--the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's search results. Once he completes a project oDesk awards him a star. With more than 650 stars to his credit, it is not hard for him to get a job anymore. He is ranked 4th worldwide in article writing. “It is possible to make Tk 100,000 per month easily at this job,” adds Chakraborty.
Martin Conboy writes, “Bangladesh needs a ' brand' in much the same way that when one thinks of Paris one thinks of the Eiffel Tower, when one thinks of Singapore one thinks of 'Singapore girl', or Malaysia with its tagline of “Malaysia truly Asia”, tulips for Holland or “Number 1 for Voice” as the tag line of The Philippines.” Marketing guru Phillip Kotler said the same thing when he visited Bangladesh earlier this year.
Emrazina Islam loved to draw when she was a child. During her undergraduate studies, she took a job in a call centre handling about 200 calls a day. One day her best friend who is also her husband introduced her to freelancing. She signed up at oDesk as a graphic designer. One can earn between 5000 to 1 lakh taka per month. She has six people working for her and she works about 20 hours a week. “The only problem is when I do not have a project, I feel insecure,” says Emrazina Islam.
Some freelancers from Bangladesh are willing to do a job for a lot cheaper than their counterparts in other countries. Sometimes they offer to do the project without negotiating the pay, desperately hoping it will help them get more jobs. But what happens is, some clients may take advantage of the situation and not pay them at all.
“Do not accept a project until the client has deposited the money in the website,” warns Ali Asgar.
There are a lot of people who are highly skilled and eager to join the freelancing trade but do not have the money to buy a computer. The government and NGOs can come forward to give them small loans which will go a long way to realising their potential.
Nazrul Islam Khan, Secretary ministry of ICT says, “We sat down with the Vice Chancellors of one hundred universities, directors of several banks and NGOs. I urged the banks and NGOs to give these students loans to buy a computer and assured them that the VCs would guarantee the loan. We expect a positive outcome very soon.”
Any freelancer you talk to will tell you that the slow speed of the internet is the single biggest problem they face. “In my view Bangladesh would be best served by offering free Internet high speed broadband access to its people and allowing people at an individual level to participate in the knowledge economy in any way that they see fit,” writes Conboy. Unlike most other sectors, the ICT/BPO sector has received considerable cooperation from the government. Freelancers highly appreciate the fact that the government has made their earnings tax exempt treating it as remittance. If the government can provide a faster internet service at a lower price, it would make work a lot easier for the talented and hardworking freelancers of the country. Freelancing has the potential to do for Bangladesh what it did for the Philippines— lifting it from abject poverty to be the second fastest growing economy in Asia after China.