Rémy Bourdillon visited the Philippines at the invitation of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which is supporting the Philippine Institute for Development Studies’ research on online work.
From his modest kitchen, Alvin Dennis, 35, manages Californian apartments that are for rent on Airbnb. On the screen of his computer, which sits on a table at the back of the room, noise detector readings are displayed, as well as the number of phones connected to wi-fi in each rented apartment. If everything spikes, it's because there is a party. In his low, calm voice, he then calls the local police. From the other side of the ocean.
Alvin Dennis lives in Luna, 300 km north of Manila, with his spouse, Marites Nonesa, and their four young children. According to various estimates, the couple is among some 1.5 million Filipino web freelancers who are benefiting from a booming trend from industrialized countries: business process outsourcing (BPO). And with the pandemic, which has opened up a world of opportunities through remote work, the boom is accelerating.
Over the past decade, it has no longer been so much call centres or production lines that North American, European and Asian companies have been outsourcing to emerging countries like the Philippines, but contracts for virtual assistants, website moderators, podcast creators and other monitors like Alvin Dennis. Contracts that pay more than factories and call centres but much less than what would be required by an employee in a Northern country.
Freelancers find these contracts, whose terms range from a few days to multiple years, on platforms, which, like Uber and Airbnb, put a client in touch with a service provider, whose reputation is built through feedback. Some experienced workers manage to build successful careers, even becoming managers of overseas businesses without leaving home.
The most popular of these platforms, Upwork, is California-based, but others are emerging, including local ones like onlinejobs.ph. A whole ecosystem is starting to emerge around “platform work”, with freelance firms, trainers, influencers… even the government is promoting online work.
The archipelago of 7,000 islands and 110 million inhabitants is known as an international supplier of cheap labour, with its workers bearing Spanish names but speaking fluent English (the Philippines was part of the Spanish Empire for three centuries before becoming an American colony in 1898). In this country, which became independent in 1946, the economy has developed around services, particularly call centres, which have experienced growth for 25 years. Two million Filipinos also regularly leave the country — the overseas Filipino workers (OFW) — to work in construction, health or housekeeping, with half in the Gulf countries and the others scattered from Hong Kong to Canada.
When the pandemic arrived, with employees losing their jobs and others quitting for fear of contracting the virus in crowded offices or on public transportation, a huge workforce was freed up —much to the delight of freelance platforms. Only a few years old (Upwork, for example, was founded in 2013), they have seen their growth accelerate. According to U.S.-based online money transfer company Payoneer, income from online freelancing more than tripled in the archipelago from 2019 to 2020. And that’s not all: according to Microsoft's Work Trend Index, 46% of Filipinos aged 20 to 40 were thinking of changing jobs in April 2022 and were leaning toward telecommuting.
A few days in Manila are enough to understand this desire. In this megalopolis of 14.4 million residents, crushed by humid heat, where children beg not far from glitzy skyscrapers and shopping malls devoid of any charm, traffic is hellish until late in the evening. The working masses are forced to use inefficient public transport: crowded subways or jeepneys — old modified American jeeps serving as buses that one must bend over to enter.
Most importantly, platform work can earn the equivalent of five or six Canadian dollars an hour. That’s a fortune in Manila, where the minimum wage is $13 a day (570 Philippine pesos).
Alvin Dennis and Marites Nonesa didn't just change jobs when the pandemic hit, they changed their lives. The couple left the capital for Luna (population of 38,000), where Marites' family lives. The government, considering minors to be incapable of following the health rules, prohibited children under age 15 and subsequently those under age 18 from leaving their homes, a measure that was in effect until November 2021. “Kids here had a lot more freedom,” says the 34-year-old mother, showing me the courtyard shaded by some beautiful trees. She is an assistant to a Taiwanese real estate investor operating in California, after having worked as an online English tutor for Chinese children.
Sometimes it gets very hot under the tin roof of the small house that Alvin and Marites rent. And during the frequent power outages, you have to start a generator, which contributes to the growing digital carbon footprint, but it's better, they say, than going to work for a pittance in a semiconductor factory in Taiwan, a possibility Alvin has considered in the past.
Like them, many former call centre employees have recently become virtual assistants. They perform secretarial-type tasks for English-speaking business owners around the world. “You need the same basic skills: communication, the ability to deal with strangers and to jump from one task to another,” observes Cheryll Soriano, Professor of Communication at De La Salle University in Manila. “The rest, such as online marketing, is learned on the job by watching YouTube videos or taking a course.”
Christian Lozada, 29, is among those benefiting from this new situation. In 2019, this resident of Antipolo, which is just outside of Manila, launched a freelance agency, Telecrew Outsourcing, where it has been raining resumes since 2020. The entrepreneur, who specializes in telephone marketing for real estate agents (calls to potential buyers or sellers), has a pool of 150 workers to offer his clients, including American giants Century 21 and RE/MAX.
To be part of his team, applicants must demonstrate that they are fluent in English and have a reliable internet connection, and then pass a personality test. Jazzlyn, Christian's wife and right hand, explains, “The client is assured that the person they are working with is really the one they need.” The agency finds its clients on the Upwork platform, which enables it to not only gain visibility but also receive certain services. For example, to ensure that freelancers are not slacking off during their contract, Upwork takes screenshots of their computers several times an hour. Telecrew has a full-time employee whose sole job is to monitor these shots.
The freelance scene has also given birth to its stars — mentors who give their advice on YouTube or Facebook.
In Poblacion, a diverse suburb of Manila where trendy cocktail bars sit next to sleazy massage parlours, the elegant Maria Korina Bertulfo, 28, wearing a loose tangerine shirt and a huge lion tattoo on her calf, tells how she started from scratch: “In 2017, I resigned from the call centre because my two-year-old son was crying all night while I was at work.” Due to time differences, call centre employees and platform workers work mostly at night. “I immediately found my first contract on the onlinejobs.ph platform: booking appointments by email for a Canadian tattoo artist.” Her life changed dramatically: she no longer had to endure heavy traffic, and her monthly income increased from $500 to $815. “I did that for two years.”
Convinced that all young mothers could benefit from web-based opportunities, Maria Korina Bertulfo launched a Facebook page, “Filipina Homebased Moms” (“FHMoms”). Her goal was “to create a community” of women freelancers so that they could break their isolation and share tips and job offers. Her first videos explained how to find clients and organize one's schedule. She then offered paid training. Five years and 360,000 subscribers later, FHMoms has become a business with 15 teachers (freelancers, of course) and about 50 mentors that also offers a computer rental service for beginners. The former call centre agent “MK” now travels all over the Philippines, whether it's to give lectures or simply to go to the beach with her children.
“Thanks to Maria, I have learned how to make proposals, land interviews and answer questions,” says 41-year-old Vanessa Quinto. We meet her at her home in one of the haphazardly arranged houses on the green hills of Baguio, a city of 300,000 inhabitants, five hours north of Manila. A stay-at-home mother without any training, she decided to enter the workforce after having her third child. She started with telemarketing (unsolicited advertising calls) and is now proficient in all secretarial duties. And she has turned her husband, Tom, a former car dealership salesman, into a believer.
“At first, I was doing data entry while waiting for buyers at the shop,” he explains. When his father became ill in 2018, Tom quit his job to become a caregiver and tried his hand at freelancing. Self-taught, he specializes in graphic design. He insists that he has found happiness: “I was living under pressure. I never saw my children. Now, I’m the one taking them to school.”
The online freelance market is not without risk, however. “There are a lot of scammers: on two occasions, we didn't get paid after accepting contracts found on Facebook groups,” says Tom Quinto. “Since then, we've stayed on the platforms because they place in escrow the amount to be paid on the client's credit card.” So be it if they take up to 20% of the contract value (as is the case with Upwork).
Despite their staggered shifts, their long hours in front of the screen, the presence of toddlers and the time they spend developing their skills to land better contracts, the couples interviewed show no signs of burnout. Before making the leap to freelancing, they already had demanding jobs and impossible schedules, some recall, and they are fortunate to have a strong family network that helps them with childcare.
“You have to put yourself in the Filipino context,” comments Professor Cheryll Soriano from De La Salle University. “Our country offers few professional opportunities. The reason so many people are turning to these jobs is because they are reaching the conclusion that this is better for them.”
But another reason is that the government wants it. On the heights of Baguio sits the regional office of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). In 2016, just as platform work was starting to really take off in the country, this department was given the mission to promote online jobs, with the goal of enabling young Filipinos to earn their keep in their communities rather than abroad. “They have strong family values and don't want to leave, but there is very little industry in the countryside. As for single mothers, they are often stuck here without a job,” says Allan Lao, Chief of the Operations Division.
In the chorus of praise for the digitization of the economy and the opportunities it brings, one has to search hard for opposing voices.
The DICT has a free training program: digitaljobsPH. After 12 days of intensive classes, students take their first steps under their teacher’s supervision for 21 days. The goal is to find their first client at the end of this period. The most popular training courses are for virtual assistant and social media manager positions, but more niche ones are also offered, such as YouTube marketing, podcast creation or architectural computer graphics.
The DICT’s regional data show that the sector is largely dominated by people in their 20s and 30s. Women account for two-thirds of those registered, with the oldest being 59 years old at the time of our visit. Almost all students come from urban areas: just 26% of the municipalities that make up the Cordillera Administrative Region (whose capital is Baguio) have access to high-speed internet.
Connections for rural households are slowly improving, so some young people are using them to lead freer lives. A two-hour drive from Baguio, the San Juan surf beach is attracting more and more of these new Filipino “digital nomads”, who only need an internet connection to work. Some have unique tasks. “I know a woman who titles pornographic videos,” laughs Wya Lorin, who owns a juice bar in an alley near the Pacific Ocean. Her sister Willette, co-owner of the bar, works for U.S. dog websites: she edits texts so that they appear among the top search results on Google.
In the chorus of praise for the digitization of the economy and the opportunities it brings, one has to search hard for opposing voices. Dime Rivera, 24, is one of those who show a touch of pessimism: “The Upwork platform is becoming saturated because there are not only Filipinos but also many Indians. Some clients try to exploit us: I’ve been offered one or two dollars an hour!” For the past year, she has spent her nights managing the Facebook pages of two American real estate agents from her studio in Manila.
Maria Fatima Villena, a freelance writer of technical documents, such as public policies and studies, agrees, “It's a very individualistic environment, where it's difficult to negotiate. If you’re a young person with little experience, you’ll likely accept disgraceful pay.” That's why this woman in her forties, along with about 40 of her colleagues, is involved in the Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines, the first freelancer organization to be officially recognized by the Department of Labour, in 2020. This recognition enables the NGO to give its opinion during consultations on the industry’s future. For Maria Fatima, it is urgent that standards, such as minimum wages, be established so that working conditions remain acceptable.
Professor Cheryll Soriano sums up the problem: “The DICT is pushing to create as many jobs as possible, without regard to the quality of those jobs.” When we check in Baguio, Allan Lao, Chief of the DICT Operations Division, is unable to tell us what happened to the cohorts trained two years ago. “We really need to improve our tracking,” he acknowledges.
In Quezon City, a city in Metro Manila, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), a public agency whose purpose is to advise the government on socio-economic policies, is conducting a study on online work. Funded by a Canadian Crown corporation, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), it is the first of its kind to look at the challenges faced by new web freelancers, particularly women.
Researcher Lora Kryz Baje welcomes us to the PIDS offices, located on the 18th floor of a tower in a complex of condominiums, shopping centres and international fast-food franchises. She repeatedly refers to the fact that platform workers operate in a grey area. She says, “They have different perceptions of their status: they see themselves as self-employed workers, business owners, temporary employees… but, if your status is poorly defined, how can you get adequate social protection?”
In various respects freelance work on platforms is akin to informal work, so it may be a step backwards for workers' rights.
The research conducted by PIDS and academics like Cheryll Soriano have a common finding: the other departments are struggling to keep up with the pace set by the DICT, which is in a hurry to create jobs, and they have fallen behind in regulating platform work. The fact is that this work not only brings dollars but also a number of challenges. For example, how can we monitor (and therefore tax) these amounts paid from abroad? All the interviewees assured us that they were honest in their reporting of income except for one. She said she was not well informed about the procedures and was afraid of being required to pay an astronomical amount in taxes.
When it comes to health, freelancers can voluntarily contribute to social security or choose private insurance, but many don't and find themselves without a safety net. And that is not to mention the many hassles experienced in their daily lives. For example, Maria Korina Bertulfo had to pay cash for her house because the bank didn't understand what she did for a living and wouldn't lend her money.
In various respects, freelance work on platforms is akin to informal work, and the PIDS team worries that it may therefore be a step backwards for workers' rights.
This really is paradoxical since women freelancers see this work as an opportunity to be seized. They are twice as likely to be on platforms than men, according to PIDS. They say they like the flexibility: they can generate income without being accused of failing to meet their family obligations. In this conservative Catholic country, 54% of women were not gainfully employed in 2020, and three-quarters said they could not work because of domestic chores and childcare.
But even when they are working long hours on their computers, such “invisible work” still falls to them, the PIDS researchers note.
However, these researchers made another observation: for equal work, there is no gender wage gap on platforms in the Philippines. Other PIDS observations are starting to be considered on the political front: two bills are currently being debated in Congress. Within a few months, they could lead to the recognition of certain rights for freelancers, such as being included in existing social security systems and benefiting from a simplified tax system. Freelancers would also have the right to a written contract as well as remedies against online discrimination and harassment. Another proposal is to create a universal employment insurance program that would enable them to receive unemployment benefits during months when they have no clients.
The DICT also has its work cut out for it over the next few years. It will have to improve internet access in rural areas to reduce inequalities in access to online jobs between towns and villages, thereby satisfying all workers who want to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital economy in this ever-changing virtual post-pandemic world.
This article was published in the December 2022 issue of L’actualité.