Bangladesh advances in freelancing, falls behind in hourly wages

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest source of freelancing after India.
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The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for freelancer Tabibur Rahman. He leads a 10-member team in Jashore. The income of many people has stopped during the pandemic but many freelancers like him have done well.

Tabibur Rahman said “I received several big orders. I don’t know whether it would have been possible any other time. I led a graphics team of a big American firm. They paid me $7,000 a month during the project period.”

About 7,000 freelancers use Payoneer payment gateway through Bank Asia in the country. The bank sources said freelancers received $33,000 in 2018-19 fiscal year, $73,000 in 2019-20 fiscal year and $39,000 in 2020-21 fiscal year using Payoneer card.

People concerned said skill sectors and other currently relevant sectors, see an upward trend in jobs and income during the coronavirus pandemic. Many jobs have been created in the health sector, e-commerce, in game developing and in digital marketing, whereas several sectors like tourism face a slump in jobs.

Mahmudur Rahman develops game, website and mobile apps. He said people stayed home for long because of coronavirus and they also increasingly turned to games and so this sector has also expanded.

He, too, received lots of work during the pandemic. Another freelancer Sumon Saha said his work increased about 30 per cent amidst coronavirus.

Some freelancers, however, did not receive work at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Belal Sarkar from Dinajpur saw a drop in work for the first 3-4 months. As e-commerce market expanded, the volume of his work increased.

The state of freelancing

Kamrul Hasan worked for two companies after completing his study at textile engineering. He was worried over job security. He then received training on freelancing and quit his job.

He started freelancing at his home in Chandpur’s Matlab. He earns Tk 20-25 thousand a month and need not to worry over losing his job.

Like Kamrul Hasan, nowadays many people do freelance instead of taking up a regular job. He said if anybody can work regularly, he/she will not have to sit idle.

Bangladesh, according to Oxford Internet Institute, is the world’s second largest source of freelancing after India.

According to Bangladesh Freelancer Development Society (BFDS), there are 150,000-200,000 active freelancers in the country. But the Oxford Internet Institute in 2017 said there were 650,000 freelancers in Bangladesh.

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However, Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) said the Oxford institute collected the data on freelancers from the big freelancing websites around the world. Other than this, many freelancers work with clients directly.

There is no accurate data on the number of freelancers in the country. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Division started giving identity (ID) card to freelancers in November last year with a view to registering them and providing various privileges.

The BFDS is involved with the ID card initiative. So far, 30,000 freelancers have received the ID card and process is on to provide another 100,000 IDs, according to the BFDS.

Bangladesh falls behind in hourly wage

Despite the expansion of freelancing, Bangladesh falls behind in the hourly wage of freelancers compared to many countries in the world. The 2019 Global Gig-Economy Index highlighted the world’s fastest-growing freelance markets and Bangladesh ranked eighth after the Philippines, India and Pakistan.

Quoting the sources at the University of Oxford, a report of Japan-based Nikkei Asia on July last year said labourers from the growing economies work at online marketplaces at a lower rate than that of the developed economies. Freelancers from the US earn highest at $30 an hour. On the other, the hourly wage of freelancers from Bangladesh, the world’s second largest source, is lower than $10, which is less than that of India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Skill challenge

Shahriar Ibn Azam told Prothom Alo how much a freelancer would earn depends on his skills, and on top of that freelancers in Bangladesh have to compete with freelancers from India and Pakistan. They work at a very low rate. So, freelancers from Bangladesh opt for a lower rate to survive the competition, he added.

The main challenge for freelancers in Bangladesh is to start freelancing before gaining adequate skills, according to freelancer Afzalur Rahman. He said nowadays, opportunity is more as well as competition. So, no one should start freelancing without skills. A freelancer can work in data entry for one or two months but one must have adequate skills to survive, Afzalur Rahman added.

Tanjiba Rahman, chairperson of BFDS, said many people have now ventured to freelancing somewhat with little skill. They are no longer interested in gaining more skills. Sometimes, clients get annoyed at them and even ban them. Skills on work, communication and business dealing are equally important in freelancing, she added.

Inflow of remittance

There is no statistics on the accurate number of freelancers in the country as well as the amount of remittance received every year. BFDS puts the remittance figure at more than $500 million.

Freelancers are frustrated over the payment gateway. They say PayPal is the globally recognised payment gateway for freelancers but PayPal does not operate in Bangladesh despite the country’s huge labour force.

Tanjiba Rahman said there is no accurate information on the earnings of the country’s freelancers and that is one of the main reasons for PayPal not entering Bangladesh. PayPal has more credibility and clients trust it.

PayPal would consider whether operation in Bangladesh is profitable because money would flow to the country. PayPal will also have to comply with the regulations and the company would also look into how much money would be sent abroad from the country, Tanjiba Rahman added.

State minister for information and communication technology (ICT) Zunaid Ahmed Palak said efforts have been on to bring PayPal into Bangladesh since 2014. He told Prothom Alo talks with PayPal are on and there has been progress recently.

The state minister said they would give freelancers a piece of good news on PayPal. “I am not making any official announcement. Perhaps, PayPal will announce a decision.”

Zunaid Ahmed said a website has been built for the registration of freelancers and providing them ID cards and they would enjoy various privileges through it. Not all freelancer registered in it and it is optional. However, there are 650,000 freelancers in the country as per the estimation on the big freelancing marketplaces and the amount of remittance received in the country, he added.

Regarding the low hourly wage and skills, the state minister said this depends on many things including skills, capability and negotiation. However, there are various programmes of the government on skill development and training, he added.

Syed Almas Kabir, president of BASIS, said if all freelancers received ID cards, they would get an idea on the number of the freelancers who bring $250-300 million a year to the country. Had the freelancers been more skilled, the remittance would have increased. Besides, infrastructure facility will have to be given. And, high speed internet in rural and access to broadband internet will have to ensured and data price will have to be lowered, he added.

This report appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna