[ANALYSIS] How COVID-19 threatens online freelancing in the PH – and what can be done
27-year old Mike* is happy to count the many perks of his job as a digital freelancer. Although his resumé includes wide-ranging white-collar expertise – from content writing to search engine optimization – he is grateful that he does not have to suffer the indignities of the contemporary office worker in a city like Manila. For Mike to connect with his clients and find his next gig, he does not need to dress up formally while having to battle the streets of the city to get to work. He only has to log on to online work platforms like Upwork and Onlinejobs.ph. Even if some people might judge freelancers such as Mike for not having “real work,” he is proud that this job has allowed him to tick off two big boxes in the list of middle class aspirations that Filipinos have: buying his very own house and his very own car.
One might think that Mike and other Filipino digital freelancers have an enviable career position in a world that is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, they have been paving the way in mastering the art and science of lockdown buzzwords “online work” and “work from home.” (READ: Want to work from home? Write well or do the math)
Our 3 years of research with digital freelancers tells us however that it would be a mistake to assume a clear path ahead for them. We should instead recognize that in the face of COVID-19, these freelancers, just like many other Filipino workers, will be facing potentially significant headwinds.
Economic insecurity amid an aspirational life
One can see that Mike’s online gig life is in very real ways a step up from the usual office worker. At the same time, however, he constantly worries about the seasonality and stability of the jobs available to digital freelancers like him. He might have a house and a car, but he is also always concerned about the next gig, as he needs to continually pay for his amortization.
So while there are aspects of digital freelancing that are aspirational, there are also aspects that share in the insecurity that characterizes a lot of the jobs available in the Philippines. Central to this experience of insecurity among these online workers is how global work platforms encourage clients to source the cheapest labor wherever it is available in the world.
For one, the global platforms readily increase pay cuts and job bidding rates or control the number of bids a worker can make at a time. This forces freelancers to accept jobs at rates lower than what is fair. The other thing is that platforms also often institute a one-sided rating system wherein only the clients rate the workers for the jobs they have done. Some freelancers end up voluntarily overworking themselves in a bid to outdo others in terms of both quantity and quality of work.
From Mike’s story, we can see that digital freelancers are still unable to completely escape what labor scholars call “precarity.” This refers to the experience of insecurity present in many jobs in modern capitalist economies, and more so in the context of developing nations like the Philippines that have a large informal work sector.
What further heightens the precarity of online work is that neither the global platforms nor the clients who engage digital freelancers provide safety nets for when the freelancers lose their clients. And as gig workers, these freelancers also rarely have access to state benefits, protections, or other local support systems.
Because of the global economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the danger that the digital freelancers’ clients – most of whom are themselves struggling foreign micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) – will find themselves in financial trouble. And when these clients find themselves in a tight spot, outsourced work is one of the first things that they will let go. The online workers will then be faced with the twin challenges of losing their treasured long-term clients and joining a mad scramble to get new ones.
Vulnerability despite a collaborative spirit
More entrepreneurial-minded digital freelancers have sought to escape the kind of precarity experienced by Mike by weaning themselves away from the big global online work platforms. They have instead established local collectives, which they use to distribute gig work in ways that are fairer and kinder to their fellow Filipinos. Emblematic of these trailblazing people is Andrews Libradilla.
Together with a team of freelancers in Iligan, Andrews founded the start-up Wrup Up, aimed at establishing an alternative and locally based online work platform. Their local collective is laudable as it promises to provide fairer rates for the workers, deliver training modules for them, and safeguard them during the “low season” by promoting forced savings from each of their job transactions.
There is also Fleire Castro, also an Iligan local who founded Third Team Media, her own digital marketing company based in Cebu. Similar to some of the other leading entrepreneurial freelancers in the city, Fleire’s strategy has sought to pivot away from foreign clients and towards local MSMEs. She says that around 70% of her clients are now local and are primarily in the travel, tourism, and transport industries. (READ: How to navigate the 'new normal' for online businesses)
Through her company, Fleire is able to distribute locally-based gigs to her team of home-based freelancers. She says that having local clients enables her to provide better financial stability for herself and the other digital freelancers in her team. She explains that while local clients might be more discerning than foreign ones and want to know how effective you are, they are also keen to establish a relationship founded on trust and goodwill.
The attempts of Andrews and Fleire to build local-based digital gig brokerages exemplify what we have labeled in our scholarship as “entrepreneurial solidarities.” This pertains to how digital freelancers seek to help each other out in gaming the dynamics of the global digital industries, precisely because they know that the rules of the game they are in are stacked against them. So in this case, we can see their moves to localize gig distribution as their attempts to soften the harsh realities of doing online work.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has plagued both foreign and local businesses alike, with many companies closing down and losing revenue. To be sure, the entrepreneurial-minded digital freelancers say that they are pandemic-ready and agile enough to adjust to rapidly shifting clients and client demands under the new normal. But despite the strategies that they have pursued to stabilize their work, one cannot deny the possibility that their clients, whether foreign or local, will pass on their financial pain to them.
Protecting the individual digital freelancers
To shield Filipino digital freelancers from the worst of the economic effects of COVID-19, we propose two ways forward. The first proposal about the precarity of these freelancers is that the government should attend to their health and welfare that, in turn, should ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector.
One positive development as regards protecting online workers has been House Bill No. 6759 (or An Act Supporting the Growth and Development of Digital Careers in the Philippines), which was recently approved by the House of Representatives. It seeks to extend social protection systems and incentives to gig economy workers as well as digital entrepreneurs, especially with the anticipation that the impact of COVID-19 will compel some displaced workers to consider a shift to digital platform work.
However, the enactment of the bill into law may take time and online freelancers and startups need more immediate attention. While the bill’s social protection provisions have promise, it should clearly identify a lead agency that will oversee the condition of digital workers and ensure, not just the promotion of digital careers, but the accessibility of functional support systems to digital freelancers.
Supporting local digital freelancer collectives
Our second proposal deals with how the pandemic has undermined the entrepreneurial solidarities that online workers have worked hard to foster. This is especially since the emergence of local forces of collective action, such as Andrew’s Wrupup and Fleire’s Third Team Media, embody the resistance that workers have against the excesses of platform labor.
In order for such initiatives to be sustainable in our pandemic conditions though, they need tangible business development support, grants, and acceleration programs from the government. These are what will allow them to compete with the larger and more popular platforms and contend with the challenge of attracting more prominent clients and workers. Otherwise, the economic pressures, especially in our current times, might be too much.
If we are able to better attend to the situation of Mike, Andrews, Fleire, and other Filipino digital freelancers, then perhaps they can better lead the way towards more sustainable forms of aspirational and collective work online and work from home. Some of us will certainly welcome that kind of new normal. – Rappler.com
*Not his real name.
Jason Vincent Cabañes, PhD and Cheryll Ruth Soriano, PhD are both faculty members of the Department of Communication at De La Salle University-Manila (DLSU). They co-lead a research project funded by DLSU’s University Research Coordination Office about the viability of digital labor in Philippine regional cities. Their work recently won the Top Paper Award for the Philosophy, Theory, and Critique Division at the 70th annual conference of the prestigious International Communication Association.