By Yoshitha Perera   Nuwan Amaranath, 31, a designer, has begun freelancing as a photo retoucher online. He is attempting to find more online clients as Sri Lanka’s economy shrinks. More people are reverting to working from home as the government declared a national lockdown. An economic collapse, the fuel scarcity, and crippled public transport have [...]


Online freelancers shift to safer options due to economic calamity


By Yoshitha Perera  

Nuwan Amaranath, 31, a designer, has begun freelancing as a photo retoucher online. He is attempting to find more online clients as Sri Lanka’s economy shrinks.

More people are reverting to working from home as the government declared a national lockdown. An economic collapse, the fuel scarcity, and crippled public transport have led digitally skilled individuals to seek more online jobs.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to cause disruption millions of workers around the world have shifted to virtual communication, and ‘work from home’ advertisements are all over the internet.

Nuwan Amaranath: Looking for more online clients. Pic by Akila Jayawardana

While many more online job opportunities are becoming available, there are many challenges for Sri Lankans.

“Working an online lifestyle is simple, but there are plenty of hidden challenges. A majority of our projects are based in other countries, and we are attempting to generate revenue without leaving the country. Long-term power outages are having a significant impact on our businesses,” Mr. Amarnath said.

Mr. Amaranath’s clients are in Japan and they are Sri Lankans living in Japan.

Power outages may cause damage to Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) devices, which allow a computer to continue running for at least a short time when power is interrupted.

The coronavirus disease, first reported in Sri Lanka in January 2020, caused havoc in the country’s labour market.

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, since the outbreak of the pandemic, labour force participation has dropped and the unemployment rate has risen.

From the second quarter of 2018 to the second quarter of 2020, the labour force participation rate fell from 51.1 percent to 50.2 percent, while the unemployment rate increased from 4.6 percent to 5.4 percent.

This is due in part to the curfews and lockdowns implemented since mid-March to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease.

To maintain economic activity in the face of the pandemic, the Sri Lankan government recommended full or partial work from home (WFH) policies, and more people took up online jobs. But the economy went into a tailspin and online jobs became a greater challenge.

Meanwhile, some who had been doing online jobs from a few years ago, have now returned to full-time work to help ease their economic hardships.

Shahdia Jamaldeen, 31, is an architect and an artist based in Colombo. To pursue both fields freely, she has started her own studio and developed a blog. Through this online platform, she was managing a number of design and interior projects along with creative-based art projects such as digital graphics, branding, and collaborations with several organisations. However, due to the current circumstances, she was forced to convert her freelance workspace to a full-time one.

“Due to the uncertainty of steady income and due to the crisis, I had to begin a full-time job again. I quit my full-time job and began freelance work, as well as developing my own brand, to create the peaceful headspace that is required for an artist. However, the field I’m involved in is facing harsh cutbacks such as projects being halted, no funds, and material price escalation. This meant I had to diversify beyond my general scope and seek a full-time job to ensure steady income once more,” she explained.

Even though there are various perspectives on the online job market, certain points must be clarified and explained further. Individuals must begin a discussion about existing WFH policies regarding online jobs and data consumption, as well as digital safety.

WFH is a broad term covering a range of pursuits, workers and employers. There cannot be one uniform set of policies or guidelines for everyone except for the basic precautions about digital security, which refers to devices and systems and digital safety which covers users.

Public and private sector institutions which ask their staff to WFH need to provide clear guidance based on their own human resources policies and practices, said Nalaka Gunawardene, senior journalist, writer and a digital media analyst.

“It is critical to clarify one point: WFH via the internet is not the same as online jobs, despite some overlap. Work that is sought, received or commissioned, delivered, and paid for entirely online is referred to as online work. In such jobs, which are typically performed on a freelance or assignment basis, the service provider and service buyer may be thousands of kilometres apart, mediated by global platforms that facilitate such transactions,” he explained.

At a time when formal employment is scarce and commuting to work has become difficult, Mr. Gunawardena believes that digitally skilled Sri Lankans should be encouraged to pursue online freelancing.

According to a 2017 study by LIRNEasia on a national sample of 5,377 people aged 16 years to 40 years, only 26% were aware of online freelancing. And only 11% of them were actually willing to work as freelancers.

“There is probably more awareness now, but not nearly enough. Also, working from home on a piece-rate or freelance basis is still not considered as proper or ‘respectable enough’ work in some families. These attitudes need to change,” Mr. Gunawardene said while emphasising that more awareness is needed about online jobs.

For years, Sri Lankan youth have been earning money by doing online freelance work for overseas clients via the internet. They perform a range of services – such as web designing, graphic design, digital marketing, creative writing, translations, transcribing, bookkeeping and accounting, etc. They can work from home, a café, co-working space, or any other location that is usually unconnected to who is paying for the job. All they need is a computer supported by a reliable internet connection and uninterrupted electricity.

To attract and deliver work, they use web-based platforms like Fiverr, Freelancer and Upwork, where buyers and sellers of digital services can trade with some basic assurances provided by the platforms. There are also some microwork sites such as ClixSense and Gigbucks.

In the first study of this phenomenon in Sri Lanka in 2017, the ICT thinktank LIRNEasia estimated that there could be 17,000 to 22,000 freelancers in Sri Lanka registered with various platforms and selling their skills online in the global marketplace.

Estimating the number of online freelancers in Sri Lanka today is not easy.

Freelancer platforms such as Fiverr, Freelancer and Upwork do not share this number by country. Official labour force surveys often do not count these freelancers as ‘employed’.

Another barrier to online freelancers is the non-availability in Sri Lanka of international micro payment services like PayPal for receiving their fees from international clients (banks charge service fees that are proportionately too high for smaller payments).

“It has been found that PayPal is not that keen to open up to Sri Lanka’s limited market; there are other comparable alternatives to PayPal that are operating worldwide with adequate regulatory supervision. Our government needs to persuade one or more to include Sri Lanka in their list of countries to which relatively small dollar payments can be transferred,” he said.

He noted that uneven broadband internet quality and frequent electricity outages affect freelancers’ ability to deliver quality output on time.


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