It was a summer night in 2013. Rabiul Alam, a fresh graduate then, was going back home after toiling that day's private tuition which kept him just in a state of subsistence. He was immersed in thoughts of an uncertain future--knocked almost every possible door for a job but to no avail.
His phone rang all of a sudden.
One of his university seniors called and offered him a remote job in the USA as a trainee virtual assistant. Rabiul instantly grabbed the offer. Although it was an entry level position and was paying peanuts, it was a real job. Rabiul was full of energy to take up the challenges.
His enthusiasm paid off after a month when he received his first paycheck of $200--an amount he earned through foreign remittance. That earning opened up a whole new avenue in front of him. Instead of just looking for a job in the domestic market, he thought of trying out his luck in the vast online marketplaces which offer multifarious jobs globally to a pool of freelancers.
Fast forward eight years, Rabiul is still working as a freelancer and earning a good amount of money from it. Even though in between these years he bagged a prestigious job at the state owned Sonali Bank where he now works as a principal officer, he hasn't stayed away from his freelancing career as he makes over $1000 from it just by working only two to three hours a day after his office time.
"Those first few months [In 2013] were my learning curve. Now as I have experience, I am working as a business analyst and digital marketer all over the world. And there, I have some fixed clients too. Here, I work for people to build their business from the scratch," said Rabiul.
A prospective career choice
Like Rabiul, many young people in Bangladesh are taking up freelancing as a career choice and this number is growing each day.
This industry started to grow in early 2000 and has become popular since the last decade. Currently, around 6.5 lakh freelancers are involved in this industry who are earning around $100 million per year, according to the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Division.
But unofficially the number is higher, around $250-300 million, informed Syed Almas Kabir, the president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS).
Bangladesh has secured the third position in online freelance workers' supply, according to a study of Oxford Internet Institute (OII) titled "The Online Labour Index". Notably, 60% of our freelancers are involved in the creative and multimedia sector, and 16% freelancers, the second highest in number, are involved in software development.
About 9% are involved in both writing and translation, and clerical and data entry sectors. Only 6% are involved in sales and marketing support and 0.2% in the professional service sector.
Most of the freelancers in Bangladesh got their projects from popular freelancing websites like oDesk, Elance, Freelancer.com, Truelancer, Fiverr, Upwork and 99 designs.
Problems persisting in the sector
But the scenario is changing as this thriving industry is dealing with a few problems for the past few years like – lack of proper training and communication, being banned from platforms, suffering from poor rural internet, inability to use international domains, restricted payment gateways and low bidding. This industry is in a crisis due to the pandemic though the freelancers are working hard to get over this.
Bangladesh was on the second position in 2017 in online freelance workers' supply but now it is on the third position, says Oxford Internet Institute. Neighbouring India and Pakistan are respectively on the first and second position. As per a report of Payoneer, Bangladesh was in eighth position based on revenue growth in 2019. Unfortunately, in 2020 we could not even secure a place in the top ten list.
From the very onset, freelancers have gone through a series of problems, figured out solutions to many and still dealing with a few. Although there are plenty of training centres now to provide proper guidelines, most of those are nothing but a sham.
"Still, there are a few institutions who advertise in a lucrative way and provide assurity of earning since the very beginning. Usually, those forged organisations teach nothing but opening an account. They become fake clients, offer projects to their students to make a good impression of their institution," explained Asif Iqbal (pseudonym), a freelance programmer.
Due to the monetary value of this industry, it has become a hot cake to both trainee and trainer. Many unskilled freelancers get into this market and it has created a bad impression. Asif said there are more reasons behind this such as misleading promotion of media and training centres' lack of competency.
Bangladeshi freelancers have seen the worst at Upwork platform. This wrong impression has caused them banned accounts and also barred them from international bidding for a couple of years.
But the number of such forgery cases has decreased significantly since many sentient freelancers have started creating awareness. Now, online based training centres are becoming more popular in Bangladesh like other countries, especially during the pandemic. A few online training platforms like Xvect Intern, Learn with Shohagh and Instructory, Freepik zero to Hero are growing and providing quality content.
Where lies the solutions?
Sorting out this problem could be easier if the government and individuals concerned work responsibly. As the government is taking projects like 'Learning & Earning Development Project – LEDP', experts think, individual freelancers can be recruited there as mentors. It will help create quality content with first-hand experience.
Experts think that renowned local freelancers can make content in Bangla instead of English to help the noob freelancers to understand the market well. Selection of participants should be scrutinised more, opined Syed Almas. "Only interested participants should get the chance to sit for physical classes and online courses should be open for all. In this way, all the participants become benefitted."
Now, things have changed and it has been possible due to the harness of the internet. Yet, this is a problem in rural areas as the bandwidth service is poor, complained Mesbah Uddin Nayeem, a freelance graphic designer.
He said the scenario is different in India where internet service is quite satisfactory and more and more brands are coming up with cheaper smartphones and laptops. Hence, their freelancers can afford those at a cheap rate whereas our freelancers are buying those at a double price.
In marketplaces, the toughest competitions they face are from their Indian counterparts. Julfiqar Ali Bhuiyah, a Dhaka based freelancer told The Business Standard that Indian freelancers use addresses of the Western countries, especially of the USA where a large community of non-residential Indians (NRI) aid them to have a US address embossed in their freelancers' digital profile.
"Naturally," Julfiqar said, "When a prospective buyer sees a bid from a US based farm with almost a similar price tag that an Indian or Bangladeshi farm comes up with, he/she opts for the former."
Julfiqar said Bangladeshis also can benefit from the large pool of non-residential Bangladeshis living in the USA or Canada.
"All you need to do is to have a person living in those countries letting you use his or her home or office address. A verification mail sent there from the marketplace would help you register with a foreign address. This way you can work from Dhaka but can even have a verified Silicon Valley address," Julfiqar added.
Problems with payment and English skills
Moreover, payment has been a real headache for the freelancers since the beginning. Though it is easier now, widely recognised platforms like PayPal are still unavailable in Bangladesh. So, their only hope is either Payoneer or Skill which are not so popular gateway for digital transactions. But for payment, India has access to Payoneer, PayPal, Direct Bank Transfer, Stripe and Escrow, which is eventually inspiring this sector to grow.
Hence, it is creating a fuss for freelancers as they cannot work for all the clients they wish. Furthermore, due to privacy issues, they cannot even accept bitcoins or crypto currency as payment although it is worldwide accepted.
Privacy policies and lack of communication skills have made freelancers to fall into many loopholes. As they are not very fluent in English, they cannot communicate well which is eventually becoming the reason for dropping back and making them less confident.
"It is like a hideous cycle. Our freelancers do not find that they have enough competency as they have a lack of confidence. So, they bid at a low price, trying to fulfil all the deadlines in a rush without considering the quality and effort they have to make. In the end, this rush is bringing nothing good and lately the entire community is suffering for that," said freelance web developer Rakibul Hasan Khan.
To grow this industry, open-source platforms, like Linux and Github, should be introduced. "A community grows when they help each other and build something together. To fulfil that purpose, quarry platforms like Stack Overflow should be created and appreciated for each sector in our country."
Social status conundrum
While growing with each other, this community also needs social acceptance. "Two-third of the people still do not understand that freelancing can be a full-fledged occupation. As a result, this profession is still in a disarray. We need jobs to secure our social status even though that pays way little more than freelancing," shared Abadur Rahman Shawon, a freelance graphic designer cum an employee of Bangladesh Bank.
To solve this problem, the government has initiated to provide identity cards to the freelancers. However, freelancers said that it has not been very fruitful as it does not add any value while paying tax or taking any loan from banks. "We are also contributing to earn remittance but we are not recognised. And, this identity card does not say anything other than my profession. Hopefully, the government will reconsider it and add a few more features to this card," said Nayeem.
Shedding light on this problem Syed said, "This is just an initiative. Hopefully, a lot of things will happen in future and our freelancers will be benefited from all those."
The good news is – freelancers are going to receive 10% cash assistance against their earnings from exporting services, a finance ministry committee has recently decided and concerned people are working on this to execute this.
This initiative by the government will be a gamechanger, some of the freelancers that The Business Standard have talked with hoped.