In the digital era’s remote and gig economy, freelancers are the frontliners and the backbone of the sector, one that is expanding rapidly as more people shift to online knowledge work.
Freelancers, according to writer Aimee Morales, founder of the Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines (FWGP), are also called, in the Philippines, informal workers, self-employed workers, independent workers, entrepreneurs, casuals, outsourced workers, part-timers, consultants.
Speaking last month at the UNI Apro MEI Capacity Building Workshop, a hybrid event in Malaysia, Morales said the plethora of terms means there is “confusion in the classification.”
Even if freelancers have been part of the economy for decades, “the government has not set up the infrastructure, systems, and policies to protect and nurture this rapidly growing sector,” she said.
“If you cannot even classify a group properly, how can you understand and respond to their needs?”
Morales said in the Philippines, “there is not enough data or research about this relatively young segment of the economy,” but that a PayPal statistic from 2018 put the number of Filipino freelancers at 1.5 million.
As part of the informal economy, the freelance sector, she added, is “prone to labor exploitation, mainly because it lacks the protection of government laws, policies, and programs.”
As I wrote in the introductory paragraph, more people are joining the freelance sector.
Among the reasons for this, Morales said, are the shutdown of some media companies, notably ABS-CBN, and the slowing down of the economy after the pandemic hit.
Many of the displaced workers turned freelance. Among writers and creatives, the switch of some media outlets to online publication also swelled the ranks of freelancers.
Freelancers, who mostly work from home, face challenges brought about by high inflation, such as increasing costs for wifi.
The slow internet connectivity in the country also affects their livelihood. Their primary concerns, however, are job security and sustainability.
As freelancers, Morales said, they also face problems of late payment or non-payment for services rendered, contracts between clients and freelancers may be vague or predatory, and freelancers do not have any recourse due to lack of remedial channels, fear of retribution, and lack of resources to pursue legal action.
She added that freelancers are “not legally entitled to the same benefits that regular employees have” such as overtime pay, hazard pay, and health insurance, as well as extras like bonuses and holiday gifts.
“Freelancers remain largely unorganized, informal, and invisible because of the lack of government laws, policies, and programs that can protect their interests,” Morales said.
“They also lack representation in the proper public forums…because of the absence of a strong organization that can represent them when necessary.
She also spoke of predatory practices among employers.
“There are companies that demand longer work hours but pay their freelance workers meager fees due to current market pressure and the desire to make more profit at a lower cost.”
Low freelance rates have stagnated for years, Morales explained, because of poverty that drives freelancers to accept cheap rates.
“Evidently, the issue is deeply rooted and intricately interconnected with other societal, economic, and even political problems.”
Morales listed some laws that offer a modicum of protection to freelancers, among them Republic Act 11165 or the Telecommuting Act or the Work From Home Law, which legitimizes telecommuting or work-from-home arrangements; RA 11904 or the Creative Industries Development Act, a newly ratified law that promotes the development of a national creative council that will help nurture the country’s creative sector; and the Copyright Law, part of the Intellectual Property Code of the PH that protects the works of creators and their right to own and profit from their works.
However, the existing laws are not focused enough on freelancers, given the many challenges and problems they face. Government needs to become more proactive on this matter.
Meanwhile, House Bill 615, or the Freelance Workers Protection Act, authored by Pangasinan Rep. Christopher De Venecia, was unanimously approved by the House Labor and Employment committee level last month. De Venecia called freelancers “the critical mass of the creative industry.”
According to the Philippine News Agency, “the bill aims to promote the safety and well-being of freelance workers…by mandating the provision of mandatory hazard pay and night shift differential pay… and [giving] freelance workers power to demand payment for services rendered through several legal channels, impose civil penalties for unscrupulous hiring parties, and criminalize non-payment of compensation.”
Morales told me “The FWGP has submitted its recommendations” on the bill. “Let us all continue to be vigilant and supportive of this pending legislation,” she said. “We are hoping that both Congress and Senate will eventually approve the bill.”
There is still more to say on the topic, but suffice to say for now that freelancers are getting a raw deal from exploitative employers and clients, and the inadequacy of government support makes it difficult for the sector to grow in accordance with its potential, that is huge now in the digital age.
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Dr. Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO