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Working Hard for the Money

Pakistan’s freelance programmers already account for $850 million of the country’s software exports. Is the underground gig economy poised for take-off?

By Hafsa Shorish

TALENT, reliability and low cost is highly sought and prized in staff. There is no such thing as ‘job security.’ Downsizing, rightsizing and upsizing is the stuff of corporate Pakistan too. Unemployment and underemployment is another factor to consider. However, there is one sector of the economy that is doing extremely well in Pakistan – the freelance community.

In fact, freelancing is becoming the new normal. A 2014 report by the International Data Group (IDG) claims 40 percent of Pakistanis are self-employed. This is a broad category, which includes temporary workers, seasonal workers, independent contractors, part-timers, free agents and the freelancers. It also includes folks holding down multiple jobs.

In 2013, Freelancer.com labeled the United States, India, and Pakistan as the nations with the highest number of active freelancers on their website. The same year, oDesk (now Upwork), one of the largest freelancing sites on the Internet, ranked Pakistan as the fifth largest contributor registering over 0.2 million freelancers.

Undoubtedly, technology is changing the way we work. “Complex algorithms can now determine who’s needed to do what and when, and then measure the quality of what’s produced,” asserts Robert Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. “Reliability can be measured in experience ratings. Software can handle all transactions – contracts, billing, payment, taxes. Even giant corporations are devolving into spot-auction networks. Amazon’s algorithms evaluate and pay workers for exactly what they contribute. Apple directly employs fewer than 10 percent of the 1 million workers who design, make and sell iMacs and iPhones,” he notes.

The gig economy is not a new phenomenon. People with artistic bent have always looked for gigs on the side while they continue to starve for their art. The term is pulled from the 1920s popular jazz era, defined by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company as “contingent work that is transacted on a digital marketplace,” in a recent report. Even though Pakistanis strive to find ‘real’ jobs that pay a fixed salary every month, forming a basis of planning a stable career and a future; most young people are seeking to make a living from freelancing gigs.

In Brief

  • The freelance techie community is thriving in Pakistan, contributing $850 million of the country’s software exports.
  • There is huge potential in this sector – it can easily top $1 billion in the next several months if their work is channelized in the right direction.
  • More avenues and co-working spaces are needed for the freelancers to connect, learn and grow comfortably as a community.

It’s an emerging trend. Pakistani programmers are being ranked in the upper 10 to 25 percent on Upwork’s listing of growth rates for top-earning countries. “Pakistan’s freelance programmers already account for $850 million of the country’s software exports,” claims one industry insider. “That number could go up to $1 billion in the next several months,” he declares.

The web has played a significant role in providing people with an alternative to traditional job-hunting techniques opening for them several avenues where they can find work and earn without taking the conventional routes, and there too is a plethora of opportunities for people to tap and unlock on the web.

“Pakistan’s information technology sector is carving a niche for itself as a favored place to go for freelance IT programmers, software coders and app designers,” says Bina Shah in a recent article in The New York Times. “There are now estimated 1,500 registered IT companies in Pakistan, with 10,000 IT graduates entering the market every year,” she reports.

oDesk is the world’s largest online marketplace enabling buyers to post information about projects so that they can be outsourced for development through freelancers from around the globe. Clients and freelancers publicly rate each other in every project, and businesses can hire on-demand talent regardless of location.

“As of July 2013, Pakistan ranks fifth in the web’s top freelancer countries list, working 2.6 million hours out of 35 million hours on oDesk in 2012,” says Khayyam Siddiqi in his article in The Express Tribune. “Nearly 214,000 million Pakistani freelancers are registered with oDesk, out of four million freelancers around the world,” he reckons.

Some Vital Statistics
“Freelancers in Pakistan are working 34 hours per week,” asserts The Payoneer Freelancer Income Survey, 2015. On the other hand, “the world average is 36 hours per week (7.2 hours per day for a five-day work week),” it says. “There is a wide range in number of hours worked as some professionals use freelancing as a way to supplement their main job while others are full-time freelancers,” the report maintains.

“Freelancers from Kenya average the highest amount of hours per week (42.6) with Egypt coming in second (38.5). Professionals working in Morocco and Tunisia work the fewest hours per week, potentially as a high percentage of them are also working at companies as well,” it continues.

The income survey confirmed that certain skill types demand significantly higher rates than others. Freelancers providing legal services charge an average of $31 per hour, significantly higher than freelancers working in sales and marketing ($21) or writing and translations ($17).

Majority of Pakistani freelancing community bid for jobs in the following categories: IT and programming (mobile, web, database, game programming, developer and QA testing; jobs ranging from $21 to $23), design and multimedia (graphic and web design; again jobs ranging from $21 to $23), writing and translation (writing and web content; paying $17 to $19), sales and marketing (social media and SEO; paying on an average around $20). Interestingly, women professionals in Pakistan are actually charging significantly more than men; even though, there is gender equality on average across the world, with almost identical rates charged by men and women freelancers.

Some of the survey’s key findings are: the worldwide average hourly rate is $21. More than half of paid clients are located in the Americas. Legal services are the highest paid at $31 per hour. The worldwide income satisfaction level of freelancers is 46 percent. Writing and translation work is the lowest paid but requires the fewest hours of work per week as well. Over 80 percent of the professionals surveyed work on one to three jobs at a time. Almost fifty percent of freelancers find projects via online marketplaces and their preferred social media channel to promote freelancing skills is Facebook.

Labor Force Survey of Pakistan
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, government of Pakistan’s Labor Force Survey 2013-14, 32nd issue, 13.1 percent of the total population is employed in community, social and personal services, out of which 13.7 percent are men and 11.5 percent are women.

As per the survey, “employees constitute the largest group (39.1 percent), followed by own account workers (35.4 percent), contributing family workers (24.4 percent) and employers (1.1 percent).”

Working-Hard-for-Money-Graph

Employed in Pakistan work an average of 52. 2 hours per week in the cities and 45.8 hours per week in the villages.

Managers make up 1.7 percent of total employed. Professional sare 4.6 percent, while technicians and associated professionals are 2.8 percent. Clerical support workers are 1.5 and service and sales workers are 16.1 percent of the total.

Based on the survey, formal employed sector makes 26. 4 percent of the total population.

Why Freelancing?
With freelancing comes financial freedom, working hours of our choice and comfortable environment among many other perks.

Usually young people are attracted to it for various lucrative reasons. Freelancing platforms like Upwork and Fiver are providing them with jobs for diverse skills set from web and app development to Internet marketing, content creation and virtual assistance. The options are numerable but then there is lack of dependency on others. People sign up for what they know and are able to deliver without external pressures.

And there are plenty of freelancers who sound quite optimistic about it too.

Working-Hard-for-Money-Status

“There are multiple reasons to work on freelance jobs instead of a normal 9 to 5,” says Humayun Haroon, an avid freelancer and now a startup co-founder at Patari. “A few are more rewarding financially, freedom of having your own schedule while doing projects that interest you. Last but not the least, the excitement of working on technology that you want to is a big win. Moreover, you can find freelance jobs for pretty much anything but the biggest chunk is obviously softwareweb-and-mobile-development related. There is a lot of highpaying work in design as well,” he explains.

“Actually ‘free’ in freelancing stands for freedom,” asserts Iqbal Azeem, a graduate from FAST and a full-time freelancer. “This is not being only done in poor countries to earn some income in dollars but also in developing countries. It is drastically increasing because it gives you the liberty of working anywhere you like ‒ be it a beach, a coffee shop or a co-working space, with no office politics and boss right on top of you. Whereas in the developing countries, such as Pakistan and India, the freelancers have to compete with the world and get paid what others are being paid regardless of location or income level of the people in that country. No doubt this gives access to great clients which help you grow as a company,” he comments.

The freelance community in Pakistan has witnessed a steady rise in the last five years. Usually a 20-something will be seen as taking the plunge into the world of freelancing while still studying at a university, making money and honing skills. Now there’s more awareness and more platforms than before for people who are switching from their 9 to 5 jobs and considering taking up freelancing as a full-time profession. Pakistani programmers, developers, designers, and coders are globally in great demand because of their experienced skills, brilliant work ethics and disciplined approach. They do suffer setbacks now and then though they can compete well with the big guns.

“As of 2015, any job that can be remotely done using a computer is available as a freelance job,” says Saad Hamid, one of the top-rated freelancers on Upwork. “There are obviously categories in which the freelance job number and value is greater as compared to others. Globally, and even in Pakistan, web development is at the top, followed by graphic design and writing,” he explains.

“The quality of projects delivered by Pakistani freelancers is on a par with our top freelancer countries from around the globe,” concurs Matt Cooper, vice president of the International Enterprise for oDesk, as he reportedly told The Express Tribune. “Pakistan ranks fifth on that list because Pakistani freelancers regularly deliver quality work in a timely fashion on projects ranging from web design to log and art jobs,” he remarks.

The world’s two freelancing giants, oDesk and Elance, published the Elance-oDesk’s Annual Impact Report in 2014 revealing top-earning freelancer countries on the two platforms among many other groundbreaking statistics.

Although the companies have merged, their freelancing operations still work on their existing models. For example, the same report claimed up to $900 million was earned by some 9.4 million registered freelancers coming from more than 180 countries. The portals had over 3.7 million registered businesses and in 2014 alone more than 2.7 million jobs were posted.

In 2014, oDesk ranked Pakistan at number four in the list of most earning countries in the world. India and the United States were again ranked at number 2 and 1, respectively. (Mind you, both countries have held the same rankings for the past couple of years or so.) Ever since the unemployment rate rose in the country, professionals looking for work have kick-started a new kind of career: freelancing.

Working-Hard-for-Money-Employee

The same report then claimed Pakistan is among the countries seeing a 30-percent increase in freelance income in 2014, rather than in 2013. There are many reasons why many young people are attracted to freelancing. The most significant incentive that compels these smart minds is the freedom of choice. Besides that, there is also financial independence and higher level of job satisfaction, with no authority lurking over their heads to get the job done.

Despite all that rise-and-shine features, freelancing hardly means easy money. There is barely any checks and balances. It needs lots of transparency and honesty. Curiously, there is a common misconception that serious professionals aren’t interested in freelancing since they find it too hard or too risky. But the biggest challenge is that freelancing is still not considered a full fledge profession in Pakistan, despite its significant contributions to the economy.

Freelancing is highly skill-oriented and instills better work ethics and discipline, with some still believing it can fetch bigger money and bigger business. “Freelancing is a path which can lead you to your own startup while providing you a handsome financial support,” asserts Ahmad Raza, a full-time freelancer since 2012 and now currently housed at the TechHub Connect. “But to be a good freelancer, you’ve got to be organized, professional and honest. It may take a few months at start but believe me it will pay back your efforts once you’ve got the pace.”

He then talks about his concern over a string of challenges Pakistani freelancers’ face which include co-working space, academic unawareness, industry support and expectations.

From Freelancers to Entrepreneurs
Freelancer Hamid sees a direct link between the entrepreneurial ecosystem and freelancing. “Freelancers can add more value to the entrepreneurial ecosystem by building a community and contributing to it. If you ask as to why this ecosystem is thriving in Pakistan at the moment, the answer is because it’s working as a community and there are mentors and advisors who help entrepreneurs, and at the same time the community is self-aware and so they can help each other.”

“Freelancers need to think about doing the same thing. So far freelancers have been known as ‘lone warriors’ and are known to work in silos. So this definitely needs to change. Also I think freelancers need to think how they can go beyond just freelancing and turn into entrepreneurs.”

“We need to develop and promote entrepreneurial mindset within our freelancers by showing that they, too, have the ability and resources to implement their ideas,” says Muhammad Junaid Butt. He is a former software engineer at the NorthBay Solutions and now full-time freelancer. Redefining that link at length, he says, “We need to build the ecosystem and environment that allow individuals to seriously consider startup as a viable career option. In this way, freelancers can add more value not only in the entrepreneurial ecosystem but also create more job opportunities in the market. There are many people who started their careers as freelancers and now they are successfully running their own startups.”

Average-Hourly-Rate

Butt believes a freelancer can play an important role in development of a startup’s product. “A freelancer has skills and expertise that a newborn startup needs and they can collaborate with each other to make a strong team to deliver a good product to the market,” he says, adding there is a gap existing between both of them. “Recently, one of my colleagues attended an event named ‘Coffee Round-table Startup Circle’ in Lahore. The purpose of this event was to engage young, passionate and experienced minds of the city to produce valuable results to improve entrepreneurial landscape in Pakistan,” he notes.

“Such events can play a pivotal role to promote the culture of entrepreneurship and at the same time provide an opportunity to freelancers to patch up with startups. I would like to conclude my opinion by reiterating that if you are a sharp learner, proficient in your technical skill set and have the courage to take risks, then you can choose ‘freelancing’ as your full-time job.” And there are those who suggest some initiatives and changes in our existing system. One such an example is Fahad Azeem, who is a CS graduate from PUCIT and currently a full-time freelancer. He says, “First of all, we need to educate people about the importance of entrepreneurship and freelancing. These things should be taught in academia. Universities should produce more entrepreneurs than employees. We need to create more co-working spaces. This will create more awareness and opportunities for people who are working at home. IT giants should shake hands with the freelance community; they can outsource some of their work to freelancers,” he continues.

“As a result, this will eliminate the dependencies of freelance portals. The government can start its own freelance portal to create a bridge between the freelance community and the industry. We need to change the perception of freelancers in the IT industry and portray a better image of freelancers. In the end, I have a suggestion for upcoming freelancers: freelancing is not easy money. If you want to become a freelancer, you should spend some time in the industry, learn and polish your skills and then start freelancing,” he suggests.

With the expanding freelance community in Pakistan, there is still a lot more that needs to be done to channelize their success as the symbol of our country’s progress. It has been unanimously felt that more avenues and co-working spaces should be introduced so that freelancers can connect, learn and grow comfortably as a community. The role of academia cannot be overlooked anymore either. We need to realize and optimize the energy of our youth and encourage them to not to shy away from considering freelancing as an alternative career.

Despite all the challenges here, the freelance community is growing and contributing towards the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Freelancers hope positive amendments to the IT industry can certainly let their accomplishments be acknowledged locally and globally because it’s time that all the major stakeholders worked together.

Hafsa Shorish is a former marketing and PR manager at Plan9. Currently she heads PlanX.

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  • Very detailed and insightful article. There is typo error in the beginning. “Nearly 214,000 million Pakistani freelancers are registered with oDesk, out of four million freelancers around the world,” In this statement, “214,000 million Pakistani freelancers” is not correct. It is just “214,000 Pakistani freelancers”. Thanks!

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