As freelancing booms, so does the need to protect freelancers’ rights
Freelance work, often called “extra,” “sideline,” “raket,” “gig”—jobs that are outside the traditional confines of the employee-employer relationship—have flourished and taken different names over the generations.
And yet, be they for additional cash or for winning one’s bread, these obviously productive activities have not fully become “visible” as formal and significant contributors to the nation’s wealth.
This is unfortunate because such jobs that nowadays are done mainly online makes the Philippines the third-biggest market in the world after the United States and India.
And also because of this, the uneven reach of regulations discount the assurance that work is “decent.”
On the one hand, these jobs are not given the chance to realize their full potential as a revenue stream for the government. On the other hand, the workers are deprived of social protection that the state can guarantee.
According to a paper issued by state think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), titled Exploring Policies and Initiatives for Online Workers in the Philippines, the country is one of the most actively engaged nations in online or platform work.
This is thanks to Filipinos being perceived to be competent, price competitive and technologically savvy, aside from their well-known good command of the English language and familiarity with Western culture.
The paper, authored by PIDS senior research fellow Ramonette Serafica and research analyst Queen Cel Oren, cites data from United States-based financial services firm Payoneer, which showed that the revenue of freelancers in Asia in 2019 doubled compared to 2018.
Payoneer ranked the Philippines sixth in terms of revenues in 2019, having surged by 35 percent from 2018. By 2020, the Philippines leaped to the top as freelancing revenues trebled from the 2019 level.
Serafica and Oren also note that the rise of freelancing online is due to the large population of youth in the country and the promise of flexibility and autonomy at work.
And with the havoc wrought by the pandemic on the job market, the change in preference of workers toward work-life balance and lower operational costs using virtual offices paved the way for the shift toward online work.
The other side of the coin is that, as the researchers point out, the government needs to ensure “decent work” for workers, especially with its diverse nature.
‘Decent work’ defined
Decent work, according to the United Nations is “work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration.”
Serafica and Oren point out that while already there are laws that protect workers, these need to be reviewed and updated to respond to the issues confronting online workers.
“Achieving the decent work agenda will require a range of policy support and initiatives as the different types of workers and forms of online work imply that a one-size-fits-all policy may not capture and address the various issues that online workers face,” they say.
In particular, these issues include online workers’ employment status, access to social protection and tax contributions.
Because of the diversity of jobs and unsteady sources of income available to online workers, their employment status is unclear—ranging from freelancers, self-employed, employees, entrepreneurs, part-time workers or platform workers.
Consequently, this lack of clarity affects their access to social protection schemes.
Indeed, while there are established social agencies—such as the Social Security System, Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and the Home Development Mutual Fund—which provide social security or social protection necessary for decent employment, the bigger issue is maintaining active memberships.
Existing processes are not necessarily in tune with online workers and they may find it challenging to make regular contributions or may not be motivated to voluntarily do so.
Serafica and Oren put forward recommendations to help the government in formulating more applicable policies and programs for online workers.
One is that there should also be simplified and digitized registration and payment processes for membership.
Another is that the academe and other training institutions pursue joint activities that will equip workers with soft and technical skills needed for the digital economy.
Third is that the government ensures access to adequate infrastructure, including reliable internet connectivity and affordable equipment.
Fourth is regular dialogue among the government, online platforms and workers to ensure compliance with basic labor rights, such as just compensation, provision of written contracts and a safe workplace.
And fifth, regular data collection on the digital economy and establishment of a monitoring and evaluation system are recommended to help the government make informed policies that will benefit online workers.
With the lingering public health crisis, online work is primed for further growth, even after the pandemic.
The researchers note that, before the pandemic, the number of full-time remote workers globally was expected to increase by 12.3 percent in five years.
But due to the pandemic, the expected growth rate might nearly double by up to 22.9 percent. Hence, the prediction is that about one-third of workers will be partly or fully working remotely five years from now.
A separate joint report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and professional networking platform LinkedIn supports the PIDS study in that hiring for online or digital jobs has been highly resilient during the pandemic.
The report, titled Digital Jobs and Digital Skills: A Shifting Landscape in Asia and the Pacific, found that the digital economy in the region is growing at great speed that makes urgent the need to invest in digital skills and talent.
“As digital skills and credentials grow in prominence, we must ensure that education systems are helping to narrow the digital divide for disadvantaged or marginalized people—and not widening them,” says Bruno Carrasco, director general of ADB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department.
The report also shows that most employers in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines now consider digital skills, such as proficiency with collaboration tools or basic internet skills for commerce as essential workplace skills, according to the survey.
Advanced skills, such as coding and programming are gaining ground. Employers surveyed required four of the last five candidates hired in the past year to possess at least basic digital literacy and skills, and two of the last five hires to have advanced digital skills.
“Digital transformation drove demand for digital jobs and digital skills—and we know this will continue,” says Dave Woodward, LinkedIn vice president and head of public policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
“It’s critical for businesses to adopt a skills-based approach to hiring and developing talent,” says Woodward. “Workers must also cultivate a growth mindset and embrace lifelong learning.”