But let’s be clear: the Philippines is actually fighting to hold the number two spot in Asia. Perennial heavyweight India is far ahead of its neighboring countries – it currently has 2,369,000 users, adding an additional 747,000 from August 2013 to August 2014.
Is the Philippines locked in a freelancing war with Indonesia?
The Philippines has the second-highest number of freelancers with 536,000, gaining 160,000 of them from over the previous year. Indonesia is not trailing far behind. The country has 412,000 freelancers, signing up 177,000 new users over the same time period.
Evan Tan (pictured below), Freelancer.com regional director for Southeast Asia, believes that this competition is representative. “These two Southeast Asian countries are competing neck and neck – with both countries’ economies rising, the competition between them in the freelancing sphere is of no surprise as well,” Tan says.
To him, the competition is only a macro one. Though you can search for freelancers by country on Freelancer.com, he does not believe that individual users are pitted against one another based on real or imagined stereotypes (i.e. “Filipinos speak better English than Indonesians” or “Filipinos are more hard-working than Indonesians.”)
According to Tan, employers do not come to Freelancer.com with a specific nationality in mind. Instead, they tend to base their decision on the reviews of the freelancers who bid on their projects, choosing the one who will most likely complete the job successfully.
Yet Tan concedes, “From a bird’s eye view, though, we see that each country’s freelancer population reveals their strengths in particular fields.” By this measure, the pool of freelancers in the Philippines is skilled at copy typing and Microsoft Excel – while their Indonesian counterparts are good at graphic design and article writing.
The freelancers in Vietnam – a market which now has 155,000 users, 91,000 of which were added over the previous year – tend to get a lot of PHP-related jobs because PHP is one of the top three skills in the country. Tan acknowledges the possible influence of extraordinary factors. “Of course, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that the popularity of Flappy Bird’s developer also spurred the growing demand for Vietnamese programmers,” he says.
If a preference for one nationality over another exists, it usually comes – surprisingly enough – from within one’s own country. “That being said, I also have to highlight that the growing number of Southeast Asian employers getting freelancers within their own country would suggest that there is an insular preference or bias for the work quality of their own fellowmen,” Tan reveals.
For the region as a whole, freelancing on sites like Freelancer.com, Elance, and oDesk is up out of economic necessity. “I think we can more rationally attribute the increase of the freelancer population in Southeast Asia with the stark unemployment rate of young professionals from the region,” Tan says, adding that data from the International Labor Organization reveals that young SEA professionals are five times more likely to be unemployed than older adults.
Given that Freelancer.com can help Filipinos get gainful employment, much of Tan’s work falls along the lines of advocacy. For example, in a partnership with the Department of Science and Technology, Tan reaches out to rural people in the Philippines. Tan and his team try to teach these people that freelancing is a way to “become financially empowered without leaving the country.”
Freelancer.com does this kind of outreach in other countries as well. “This has been the same with our partnership with the government of Malaysia, where we’re reaching out to the bottom 40 percent of their population and introducing to them the potential of freelancing,” Tan says.
Tan may have his work cut out for him, at least in the Philippines, where poorer people may be used to getting hand-outs from nonprofits and social enterprises. He has to make it a point to convey that freelancers have to work hard to get projects on Freelancer.com. “People from the public and private sector should focus on empowering people, as opposed to giving dole-outs,” he says.
According to Tan, as more Filipinos discover freelancing, more and more of them will try to develop the high-level skills that tend to be more lucrative. This is bound to lead to concentrated growth in a few of Freelancer.com’s more than 600 job categories.
As a historical example, Tan points to graphic design, which was only the 19th skill listed by Filipino freelancers in 2012, but jumped to 7th by 2014. Similarly, internet marketing did not even make the top 20 skills of Filipino freelancers in 2012. “Two years later, it’s now the sixth!” Evan beams.
Given the success of freelancers in the Philippines, can the country ever dethrone India as the top choice for online employers around the world? As of now, India has roughly two million more freelancers than the Philippines.
In response to this question, Tan defers to the precedent set by another industry. “We’ve already seen the Philippines beat India as a top BPO destination, so I don’t think it’s impossible,” he says. “This makes it all the more necessary to invest in raising the skillset of more professionals in our country.”