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The rise of digital serfdom

IF the rosy picture painted by digital financial services giant PayPal is to be believed, the “gig economy”—a vast and growing labor ecosystem of freelance workers—promises a bright future for Philippine millennials.

As PayPal and other “gig economy” evangelists describe it, the system is the result of the perfect marriage between the millennial perspective toward work and the goal of businesses to develop leaner, more cost-effective operational models.

The young workers get to do what they want, when and where they want to do it, while businesses in the digital realm can produce and grow without the heavy investment in a dedicated workforce.

A press release summarizing the key pitch points of a recent PayPal-hosted media event on the “G-Economy” found its way into the local papers over the weekend and described the situation in terms that sound almost too good to be true.

“Millennials will occupy the majority of the global workforce in three years. They are the on-the-go generation, with highly differentiated preferences when it comes to work. They like working from home and value autonomy.

That’s why freelancing comes so naturally to them,” a PayPal executive explained, adding that the “emergence of millennials will introduce a new reality to the workforce,” the implication being that companies are being forced to adapt to the available talent’s “differentiated preferences.”

The pressures of the business environment in this rapidly developing part of the world also play a role, the press statement acknowledged. “Rising labor costs across many Southeast Asian nations are causing businesses to re-evaluate their approach on talent management,” it said. “For SMEs and new-found tech startups, utilizing freelancers enables their businesses to be viable, flexible and sustainable. With human capital being one of the highest costs for companies, more businesses are looking to scale and expand without expensive capital outlay.”

To help the self-interests of workers and businesses complement each other, hundreds of digital platforms have been developed to connect freelancers and businesses needing a job done. “Buying and selling services across the globe has never been easier, and this is enabling organizations and freelancers to find each other in a matter of a few clicks,” the PayPal official gushed.

PayPal, naturally, is ideally situated to help with all-important payment management facet of this exciting new realm of enterprise, which of course was the real point of the company’s hosting the media event.

As the gig economy relates to this country specifically, “The Philippines is one of the world’s most dynamic markets for freelancers and ‘solopreneurs’,” the PayPal official said. There are a few obvious reasons why, although neither he nor the press statement spelled them out. The Philippines has a large millennial workforce. It is a generation that from birth has lived in an economy and society in which the concept of labor export is institutionalized, a condition that is both cause and effect of the relative paucity of more normal job opportunities.

Despite being handicapped by an atrocious digital infrastructure, younger Filipinos are still among the most connected and digitally savvy markets in the world. Millennial Filipinos also have reasonably good English language skills. Not as good as their parents’ generation, perhaps, but still better than their peers in alternative markets.

All this may inspire visions of carefree work—casually knocking out a week’s worth of wages in an hour or so on the laptop while on the beach in Boracay, or over lattes at Starbucks. And that is precisely what PayPal and their “roster of freelancer thought leaders” want Filipino millennials to imagine. Or Indonesian millennials, or Chinese millennials, or Bengali millennials, or Indian millennials, or millennials anywhere else as they constitute a large, low-wage, reasonably intelligent workforce. The reality, of course, is quite a bit less appealing.

I can make that assertion because I am probably a fairly good example of a “gig economy” success. My “real” job (it’s shocking, I know, but print media work doesn’t actually pay a lot) is producing various sorts of written content—blog posts, press releases, marketing materials, product and service white papers, and so forth—for corporate clients of a US-based agency. I am one of a roster of people with expertise in different areas. I generally handle Fintech and industrial process management topics.

My particular agency is restricted to freelancers who are legally eligible to work in the US, so I am for all intents and purposes simply doing an extreme form of telecommuting, but there are other similar platforms that employ Filipinos, and even a few that prefer them. The other mode of connecting freelancers to the market is through digital marketplaces, in which freelancers can bid for jobs posted by businesses.

In both models, there is a variety of job skills in demand—web or other media content, coding, graphic arts, data entry, and certain forms of call center activities—but in all cases, the work that is sought by businesses is characterized by high volume and low value. One can become successful as a freelancer, i.e., earn enough by that means to call it a decent leaving, but it takes patient effort to build up a clientele that likes one’s style and for whom a certain degree of repeatability is desirable or necessary. I have, but it took the better of a year for that to happen, and I do not flatter myself that my output is so unique that it allows me the bold privilege of straying too far from the clientele’s terms as far as price or delivery and compensation modes, as there remains an abundant supply of willing alternatives. The same is undoubtedly true for freelance specialty, whether it involves any degree of creativity or not. If the products or services provided by freelancers were that valuable to businesses, they would obtain them through more secure means.

The “gig economy” for many—for all at the start, and for all but the most talented, diligent, or lucky it remains so—is a form of digital serfdom. Viable compensation depends on volume, and there is little to no protection for the worker in case of dispute. If someone on the other side of the world whom you know only by a screen name decides not to pay you for what you’ve just sent him, there is precious little you’re going to be able to do about it.

Make no mistake, the reason the gig economy is so highly touted by the likes of PayPal and “freelance thought leaders” is because its existence represents a business opportunity for them. For almost everyone else, there are easier ways to earn a living.


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