A solution to the dwindling number of foreign outsourcing jobs can be found at home
At a time when the world is coming to terms with the idea of working from home, veterans of the gig economy are facing difficulties securing sufficient work to weather the storm brought on by the coronavirus.
Prior to mid-February, graphic designer Mesbah Uddin Nayeem would earn his daily bread from freelance contracts in defiance of the traditional nine-to-five routine.
But once the coronavirus hit the prime customers of such contracts – the US, UK and other European nations – the flow of gigs have since dried up.
Activities like marketing, content writing, promotional gigs and web development have all taken a backseat to the battle against Covid-19.
Freelancers and outsourcing companies in Bangladesh are going through a period of uncertainty with no end in sight for what began as a temporary slump for the gig economy.
"All I can do is wait and hope for things to change for the better," said a frustrated Nayeem.
While the number of jobs posted on different freelancing sites have decreased by 30-50 percent, bids and submissions against those gigs have increased significantly.
Beginners are bearing the brunt of this as experienced and reputable freelancers are now competing with them for a much lower number of gigs.
Emrazina Islam, a freelance graphic designer, said, "Those who have been working for years in this sector have several clients and are still working on gigs secured before the crisis began.
"But if this continues for the next two or three months, the entire sector will take a hit."
To survive in this cutthroat market however, some outsourcing-based tech firms have opted to work from home, while some are even keeping their offices open.
One-third of the employees at Creative Clipping Path Limited (CCPL) regularly attend office to complete the projects they began working on before the coronavirus crisis began.
Monir Hosen, founder and CEO of CCPL, said they are paying all employees for now, but are unsure of how long this can sustain.
"None of the new projects are accepting bids," he added.
Industry insiders also fear that Bangladesh might remain in a shutdown when normalcy returns to other countries.
This could bring a devastating blow for our freelance community since regular clients might then shift to other companies – or even to different countries – that can complete the projects.
Gigsters working at outsourcing firms are worried about losing their jobs.
An employee of a prominent outsourcing company said his skills are suited only to the outsourced gigs. But as he does not have a degree, getting fired from this job would make it difficult for him to secure another – especially if the gig economy does not recover.
The skills our freelancers possess do not have to go to complete waste though. A solution to the dwindling number of foreign outsourcing jobs can be found at home.
As most people are stuck indoors, the burden of fulfilling their regular demands has now fallen on the shoulder of the domestic e-commerce sector.
Websites like 6connex, which arrange online-based workshops, movies, exhibitions and conferences are on high demand and are working tirelessly.
Creative IT Institute and Bdjobs have shifted their classes and courses online and are getting good feedback from their students.
Running and developing such websites and designing promotional content is quite similar to the type of work freelancers are used to.
Furthermore, worried by the loss in earnings from abroad that the freelancers bring in, local tech lobbyists are also planning to help the freelance industry.
Syed Almas Kabir, president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), informed that yearly around $250-300 million brought in by Bangladeshi freelancers.
On behalf of its registered members, BASIS has proposed to provide them with office rent and six months' salary for employees through the ICT ministry.
They have also proposed to grant them a soft loan at two percent interest rate and decrease the Nationwide Telecommunication Transmission Network (NTTN) cost to 50 percent.
There is no specific list of how many freelancers work in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, BASIS Director Rashad Kabir believes that freelancers are also going to be benefitted from this assistance.
But the Bangladesh Freelancers Development Society (BFDS) is in the process of making a list of freelancers, informed General Secretary Mahfuzur Rahman.
"Hopefully, we will come up with a list within a month. In this crucial moment, we should learn how to search for freelance work on different platforms rather than depending on a few websites," he added.
N M Zeaul Alam, senior secretary of Information and Communication Technology Division said the ICT ministry is trying their best to help freelancers and assure uninterrupted internet service for them.