Notes from the Field

Online Work: The Game-Changer for Asia’s Entrepreneurs

July 9, 2014

An exciting tech trend is reshaping Asian workforces. In countries like Bangladesh where the economy is expanding alongside faster broadband speeds and mobile penetration, entrepreneurs and skilled workers looking for employment are turning to online work, or eWork. A 2014 report on global online work by Elance-oDesk (a merger of two eWork “freelance” platforms) measured over 8 million registered online freelancers and 2 million registered business clients on its two platforms combined. It is predicted that in 2014, $930 million worth of work will be completed on the platform.

ICT in Bangladesh

In countries like Bangladesh where the economy is expanding alongside faster broadband speeds and mobile penetration, entrepreneurs and skilled workers looking for employment are turning to online work. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Flipping the employment paradigm

eWork uses new technology to expand opportunities in markets where employment is often in flux. Asian economies benefit from a mass of educated young people, low labor costs, and favorable or improving business and economic environments. In a recent assessment of the world’s top-ranked countries for offshoring of services, Towers Watson, a leading global professional services firm, concluded that “the Asia-Pacific is the top-ranked region, with eight of the top 10 offshoring destinations.” China and India remain the top two destinations for services offshoring, but Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia are not far behind.

These countries are primed for growth but often suffer from substantial underemployment, meaning that much of the population will work a few days a week without real job security. Oftentimes, industries cannot handle the rising costs of production, and the influx of foreign direct investment cannot keep up with the demand for jobs; this is where fast-moving and flexible eWork can play a part.

In Pakistan, the online freelance economy has been credited with providing new employment opportunities where there were none. Young IT and programming professionals with the enterprising spirit to build their online brand are making a real living out of eWork, to the tune of more than $13 million spread over 250,000 workers on Freelancer.com (another eWork platform) alone.

eWork Platforms: how do they work?

Online offshoring of services is rooted in traditional manufacturing outsourcing and is a close cousin of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), whereby a company contracts out key business functions (i.e., customer service call center) to foreign workers. Not surprisingly, the biggest players are headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, with internet-enabled eWorkers stationed worldwide, ready to complete business tasks online ranging from document editing to data processing and application development.

Elance-oDesk is a private company that enables businesses to find, hire, and collaborate with freelancers working at a distance from over 180 countries worldwide. The top four highest-paying freelance jobs on this platform are patent law, voice acting, ruby programming, and startup consulting, but services run the gamut, with simpler jobs making up the bulk of freelancer earnings. Task management and virtual office assistance, blog post writing, and data entry are opportunities within reach for any computer literate English-speaker.

Samasource is a nonprofit that hires impoverished women and youth and provides them with careers in data work. These individuals are offered extensive training and a living wage, and deliver various data service engagements for enterprise clients. Business listing verifications, writing product specifications, and transcribing data from captive PDF files are all tasks that eWorkers can complete with high accuracy. Since 2008, Samasource’s 5,000 plus workers in Africa and South Asia have earned a total of $3.1 million in direct wages and benefits – economic benefits that also support their dependents.

The services that these and other platforms provide are attractive to cash-strapped entrepreneurs in search of talent. The comparatively low cost of global online workers and the flexibility of hiring on a per-task basis keeps operating costs low in places where running a business is not easy.

Entrepreneurs living in cities stand to gain the most from eWork (due to more reliable broadband connections and better access to education), but the model can and should be adapted to rural dwellers and women entrepreneurs living on the margins. As the women’s entrepreneurship movement grows, eWork will offer a smarter way for women to juggle the dual demands of work and family, and help expand their ability to generate income where gender discrimination and lack of opportunities in the physical workplace has limited them.

The role of governments in Asia

In the years ahead, facilitating the emergence of public-private partnerships around information and communication technology (ICT) reforms will be important in those countries set to experience an eWork boom. Policy-makers can play a strong role by leading broad-based coalitions around ICT infrastructure upgrades, supporting a competitive environment for internet service providers, and setting funding aside for ICT skills training. These policy issues are increasingly given their own stage as part of digital government strategies.

On the launch of Freelancer.com in Thailand, a company representative said the Ministry of ICT Smart Thailand Master Plan “will allow more professionals to find work opportunities online.”
Reez Uddin Mosharraf, secretary general of Bangladesh Association of Call Centre and Outsourcing, said that more students could land lucrative freelancing job contracts if broadband providers offered high-speed internet facilities and cheap bandwidth. Indeed, policy schemes such as “Digital Bangladesh” serve to define the role of technology in citizens’ social and economic lives, and lay the ground for important public-private interactions that increase the quality of infrastructure and connectivity countrywide.

Building on the eWork sector

The eWork space is changing fast and much remains to be done in order to grow a borderless, instantaneous eMarketplace. Training programs that explain the basics of creating an online worker profile and how to market one’s skills are necessary.

Grameen Solutions just launched an initiative to create 100,000 IT freelancers in Bangladesh over the next four years. This is a partnership with Coders Trust, a microfinance initiative backed by the Danish government that supports students looking to upgrade their programming skills through training. The Rockefeller Foundation is investing in a $100 million initiative called “Digital Jobs Africa,” which will chip away at the unemployment problem for Africa’s bulging youth demographic by catalyzing sustainable ICT employment opportunities and skills training.

In Bangladesh, The Asia Foundation is building on its work in four geographic regions to expand ICT training for women entrepreneurs that will help them take their businesses online, and provide opportunities for them to diversify into eWork. As we look ahead into the digital “unknown,” it is important to champion those innovations which provide the greatest potential for return and the lowest barriers to entry for Asia’s entrepreneurs: eWork is definitely one to watch.

Nicolas Picard is a program associate for The Asia Foundation’s Economic Development Programs based in San Francisco. He can be reached at nicolas.picard@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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