Internet opens doors for developing world workers

By Fiona Graham
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

image captionOn demand: As more and more people across the developing world get access to the internet, work opportunities open up

"In India there's no concept of babysitting in the smaller cities. So mothers have a very difficult choice to make."

When Sangeeta Thomas's husband decided to change jobs, the family moved to city of Mangalore.

She left her job as a customer care executive for HSBC and American Express behind - but with an 18-month-old to look after her job prospects were now limited.

"Either you have grandparents at home, or you have maids to take care of babies and children, otherwise only mothers take care of children. They either choose work or they choose home.

"It's very difficult for working women. They have to compromise with their family life."

She started looking for something she could do at home. While browsing the internet Mrs Thomas came across an article with links to freelancing websites.

These services -, Elance, oDesk and the like, allow people to sign up and bid for freelance projects.

With each successfully completed project, employers can post reviews. The more positive reviews you have, as you gain reputation, the better your chances of securing more highly paid work become.

image captionSangeeta Thomas: "Without the internet, working from home isn't really feasible."

Initially suspicious, she chose a copywriting project advertised on and began bidding.

"The price of the project was very low - but I wanted to see if the site was genuine.

"It was only 35c for a 200 word article. It took me almost 30 days to complete that project and to make $30, so that I could get it paid into my bank account.

"I realised it was genuine. I was very happy - it was exactly what I was looking for, something that gives me the freedom to work from home, to take care of my son, as well as being financially independent."

As she gained good reviews, Mrs Thomas says she was able to bid for much better paid projects and now earns significantly more than she did in her former role.

Hard realities

These are services that continue to attract controversy in the developed world.

In the same way that the outsourcing of call centres and production work has been blamed for job losses, so these services have been accused of pushing down rates of pay for workers in developed countries.

Critics also claim that the quality of the work done by those bidding at the lower end of the spectrum can be variable.

These are issues that are unlikely to be readily resolved.

But what does this mean for those in the developing world, where wages are lower and opportunities few and far between?

Only about 30% of the population of the world currently has internet access. But this is a figure that is rising rapidly.

With online access, comes the opportunity to look beyond their local area for work. A lower cost of living, lack of a welfare safety net and poverty can all make workers from the developing world significantly cheaper than their first world counterparts.

New independence

image captionJob Otieno: "People in Kenya still believe in white collar jobs, working in an office"

Job Otieno is 29 years old, and lives in Nairobi in Kenya.

He has been freelancing for nearly a year. He says working from home has given him freedom without the need to find the up-front funding to start a new business.

"This was more friendly in terms of business, and it also gave me the opportunity to do something I really like in terms of writing.

"Initially when I started I was actually writing technical articles, mostly to do with software, computer technology and all that," he says.

"From there I decided to expand my view. Nowadays I do articles on insurance, articles to do with health, I do review articles."

When he started there were some teething problems.

"I didn't have anyone to give me the groundwork, to show me how to bid for the projects, and for example not every buyer or freelancer is honest.

"But after three months I managed to get my act together and it's been pretty easy for me since then."

Mr Otieno had previously worked as a computing teacher, but now earns double his former salary.

He has big plans for the future.

"My ambition is to have a small business out-processing centre where I can expand my operation, I'll put some computers in there and employ some guys and expand my business."

"It has changed my life for the better, and it has given me confidence in terms of being independent."

Family ties

image captionJohn Gotidoc: "I get to see my children grow up every day. I'm able to provide for them"

In the Philippines, around five years ago John Gotidoc faced a choice few fathers would want to be faced with.

In order to send his five children to school he needed to find an alternative source of income.

"The norm here is if you want to earn more you have to go abroad, you have to go overseas and look for jobs elsewhere.

"Well, the thought of just leaving my children and family behind was unbearable. To leave my children for the sake of money.

"I thought that there has to be some other option that I can do."

Freelancing has allowed him to remain at home with his children, and still provide for the family, he says.

"And the best thing is that I don't contribute to pollution. I don't go to work, I don't use the car, I have a home office.

Disruptive practices

Matt Barrie is the chief executive officer of, the world's largest website of its kind. The Australian bought the site in 2009, before embarking on a large expansion process.

image captionMatt Barrie: "The majority of the world's population actually survive on $200-300 a month"

He feels that the growth of services like this is inevitable.

"If you look at the Philippines for example, in 2009 there were 8 million people out of 100 million people on the internet.

"In 2010 there were 30m million. And 25 million had Facebook accounts.

"The internet is disrupting the global labour markets."

It isn't hard to see why, he says.

"If you work in call centres in these countries, your starting salary is around $240. If you have a degree. This is a white collar, middle class job."

As to the knock-on effect for the developed world, Mr Barrie is unapologetic.

"To be frank, it's mostly low-paid jobs that are being out-sourced.

"Technology is inherently disruptive. We're not causing this, it's the internet that's causing this by breaking down barriers."

Big plans

The bigger argument over the rights and wrongs of outsourcing will continue.

But for people like Sangeeta Thomas, this type of work has, she says, been life-changing.

"I cannot express in words how much happiness this site has given to me.

"I'm able to make a good income from home and at the same time I'm able to contribute to the family, help my husband, take care of my babies."

Four months ago, Mrs Thomas gave birth to twin boys. She's working less, but has big plans for when they start playschool.

"I want to start a copywriting company of my own, give work to housewives like me who want to work from home.

"I want to help a few friends, women who want to work and help their families," she says.

"Talks are on now for that. I have many regular clients who know I'm capable of providing quality work."

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