Pandemic proves a boon for IT freelancers
Like a million others, Ridoy Saha became unemployed within weeks after Bangladesh introduced a nationwide lockdown in March last year to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
He returned to his village house after his employer, an advertising agency, was closed. But unlike many others, he soon got back to work to make a living, as the jobs he specializes in have not lost demand around the world.
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He started working at Upwork, an American freelance platform. In addition, his monthly income more than quadrupled compared to the Tk 30,000 he took home while working for the advertising agency.
“I do the same thing I used to do for the agency – graphics and animation. The first few weeks of freelance work were challenging. Then I got some clients who liked my job and started giving me work on a regular basis. ”Saha said.
Saha isn’t the only freelancer who was able to keep working during the pandemic. Globally, Covid-19 has brought applause to freelancers as the crisis highlighted the convenience of remote working. More and more companies around the world are hiring them to reduce labor costs.
This outsourcing trend has sparked a gold rush for many, especially teenagers and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn.
Bangladesh has six lakh IT service exporters or freelancers, and the number of team-based freelancers is around 1,600. Together they bring in around 500 million US dollars annually, according to industry experts.
Nahid Hasan, a freelancer, said the boom in e-commerce and the demand for online tools have created more business opportunities for freelancers. Global companies also tried to minimize costs.
He began his freelance journey in 2010. Within a week, he hired one and started Bizcope.
Hasan set up his first physical office in 2012 and moved to a larger one four years later. His team now consists of 27 employees.
Bizcope offers services such as search engine optimization, digital marketing, web design and development, content creation and digital content production.
“We serve both global and local markets,” he said.
Suman Saha, who lives in Dhaka, started her freelance career at Upwork in 2012 while working in a private company.
At the time, he was responsible for website development and design, and was earning $ 5 an hour. Soon he switched to projects developing mobile and software quality assurance.
Now his hourly income has risen to $ 25. His income rose 25 to 30 percent during the pandemic.
“When I get flooded with overtime, I give some of it to juniors who work with me on a virtual team.”
Freelancers who have not redesigned their services to meet needs have suffered from the pandemic. For example, the travel and tourism-related IT service providers are severely affected by the slump in the industry, according to industry representatives.
However, individual freelancers continue to struggle to bring home payments from their international employers.
Prior to 2012, outsourcing revenues were mainly transferred through illegal channels. Although some of the money came by bank transfer, it was expensive.
This year, Bangladesh Bank issued a notice enabling freelancers to receive payments into their bank accounts through online payment gateway service providers (OPGSP).
A few months later, Bank Asia became the first lender in Bangladesh to take initiatives to channel income from freelancers through the Paiza Pay partnership, an OPGSP.
Since Paiza hasn’t built good connections with freelance platforms, online freelance workers haven’t been able to bring much back.
The bank later partnered with Payoneer, the world’s second largest OPGSP, and launched its service in March 2015.
Bank Asia manages half of the funds that come through formal channels, according to freelancers and a BB official.
According to Md Zia Arfin, head of the bank’s international division, freelancers have raised $ 519 million through Bank Asia since 2014.
The inflow of payments through the private commercial bank increased in 2020 over the previous year by more than 40 percent to 140 million US dollars.
In 2018, Bank Asia, in collaboration with the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) and Mastercard, announced the launch of the “Shadhin” card, the first freelance card in Bangladesh.
The card enables freelancers to receive payments direct from international employers.
Brac Bank, Dutch-Bangla Bank Ltd and Sonali Bank also manage payments for freelancers.
The BB issued a decision in February that enables IT freelancers to bring home small amounts of income through mobile financial services.
“While there have been many ways to raise money, the lack of the largest OPGSP, PayPal, has been a setback for freelancers as many clients prefer the platform,” said Mahfuzur Rahman, general secretary of the Bangladesh Freelancers Development Society (BFDS).
Since 2018, the state has supported the export of ICT products or services with 10 percent in cash. However, only institutional IT and freelance companies that are members of BASIS are eligible for funding.
To extend the opportunity to individual freelancers, a meeting was held in February with the participation of BASIS, BFDS, Bank Asia, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of ICT.
So far, however, there are no concrete measures.
“Freelance referrals now exceed $ 500 million annually and will soon surpass the $ 1 billion mark. Our foreign exchange income will increase if the incentive is given, ”said Minister of State for ICT Zunaid Ahmed Palak.
In June he wrote a letter to Trade Minister Tipu Munshi asking him to review the incentives for individual freelancers.
“The incentive will also encourage youth employment,” added Palak.
Last year he called on the central bank to extend the incentive to individual freelancers.