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Working online: Skills that pay off

Mutasim Billah Mubde and Rafe Rais Hannan | Published: April 26, 2019 21:05:21


The technological space is constantly shifting, and with it the nature of work itself. Although the standard arrangement of working 9-5 at an office still exists, there is a growing trend towards working through online platforms. One can point to the first job posting platform, established in 1998 in the United States (now named GURU), as the origin of this trend. Since then, numerous other online job platforms have sprung up; some of them are internationally recognized within the freelance community such as Freelancer, Fiverr and Upwork, while some are locally developed (KaajKi.com and cWorkMicroJobs). These platforms merely provide a mode of engagement between two groups; those that seek work (freelancers), and those that seek services at a competitive price. Jobs are posted with specified deliverables and a wage budget, and the prospective workers can bid on them. In academic literature, the term "freelancer" encompasses a wide array of definitions. The purpose of this article, however, is confined to workers on online work platforms, and their income generation prospects on these platforms.

Bangladesh hosts the second largest workforce, when it comes to working online according to an Oxford University report. This growing trend of delivering work online sets precedence for the following questions: Who are the workers on these freelance platforms, and what kind of skills is important to thrive in this workspace? Most of the freelancers engaged in these platforms are confined to the younger demographic. A report by Payoneer (an online transaction processing company) finds that over half the global freelancer population is under the age of 30. They also find that these workers earn up to $19 per hour on average. From the context of low wage workers in a developing country, this can be an important avenue for supplementing income. In this regard it is important to understand the most frequently occurring services that are demanded by clients on such platforms, and the subsequent wage that can be earned from delivering them. While working at the Economic Research Group for an ongoing research, we obtained additional information on 249 job postings from Freelancer, Guru and Upwork. This information included the most frequently posted work types and the client location by number of postings. A ranking of the most frequently posted jobs on these websites is done based on collected data. The countries where the highest number of jobs originate from are also ranked.

Using the average hourly rate presented in the Payoneer report we list the popular skills relevant to each work type in the second table. Graphic design is the most posted work with an average hourly wage rate of US $17. It requires the skills to operate Adobe Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) and a creative mind to design logos, business cards, brochures and many more. Software development is the second most posted work, which boasts an average hourly wage rate of US $23. Acquiring programming skills (Java, .net framework, C#, HTML, etc.) at a basic level enables an online worker to develop software, as well as programme for websites, mobiles and databases, as these are closely tied with software development. Writing and translation is another popular work on the relatively easier side of the spectrum. Online workers can earn on an average US $16 per hour by writing, transcribing and translating. It can involve creating webs or advertising contents. Some degree of research is also required for writing and translating a specific topic, concept or product/service description. Sales and marketing is the next work type in demand, which mostly involves digital marketing. Ability to navigate social media platforms is the key in this category of work. Whereas the discussed categories of work can be availed by individuals with computing skills and programming knowledge alone, the work categories such as Engineering & Manufacturing, Finance & Management, Legal, and Administrative & Customer Support require specialized knowledge and skills specific to each field of study, albeit mostly at the basic level.

Engaging in online work as opposed to having a traditional mode of labour engagement is seemingly the global trend. While some workers are opting to use this avenue as a supplement to their existing income, many have resorted to making it their full-time profession. Given this global trend, it would be useful for the younger demographic of Bangladesh to consider acquiring some of the aforementioned skills. The benefits of engaging in such online work are many fold; the most obvious of which is the autonomy it provides over working schedules, and the low levels of skills required to deliver such tasks. While this provides a greater flexibility over work hours, and an easy income supplement, there are certain caveats to such a type of work. The work on freelance labour platforms is not governed by traditional labour contracts and is therefore susceptible to excessive extraction of labour, often at very low rates. This is partly due to the growing competition for such work in the global context. Furthermore, the party that receives the work order often engages in the sub-contracting of the work, thus engendering further avenues of exploitation and rent extraction. Despite the income generation prospects of such work, workers engaging in such platform-based non-contractual engagements should be wary of these issues. Concocting policies to bring these labour arrangements under the regulatory framework would establish labour rights - minimising the extent of labour exploitation, and address the fiscal implications.

Mutasim Billah Mubde and Rafe Rais Hannan are research associates at Economic Research Group (ERG).

rafe.hanna@gmail.com; mutasim.mubde@gmail.com

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