In-depth | Work

Being your own boss online

By - 21.06.2018

Is digital freelancing the answer to Kosovo’s unemployment crisis?

When Edonjeta Iberhysaj’s client — the owner of an architect firm in Australia — goes to bed each night, he keeps his computer running. This allows Edonjeta to access his computer remotely, working directly with programs on his desktop. As her client is fast asleep, Edonjeta performs her assigned tasks of rendering 3D images of kitchen plans, delivering the results by breakfast.

Edonjeta knows very little about her client, but her situation is an increasingly common image of modern employment. For Edonjeta, a recently graduated architect living in Prishtina, technology has allowed her to perform work for clients that live many miles away.

“Online work has been a great way of finding more work options without having to move to a different area,” Edonjeta says.

As a recently graduated architect, Edonjeta Iberhysaj has been embracing the opportunities available to her through online work. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Outside of freelancing, Edonjeta has managed to get an on-site job near Deçan as an architect. Many other Kosovars of working age are not so lucky, with youth unemployment consistently hovering around 50 percent.

With employment opportunities lacking locally, more and more people are going online to search for contracts. Architects, designers, programmers and translators are among those who venture into new markets.

Even Edonjeta is considering a switch to a fully online-based working life. “I am considering going freelance full time, but it feels a little risky when you don’t have a fixed income,” Edonjeta says. “It’s hard to know whether it will work out in the end.”

As a factor of production, scholar David Harvey once noted, labor is tied to its geographical space because “labour power has to go home every night.” Capital can be moved around with relative ease, but workers dwell in a particular physical space.

They still do, of course, but increasing connectivity has allowed employers to reach them from afar. In the 1970s, corporations came under financial pressure due to global crises and looked for new ways of cutting costs. By moving manufacturing to low-wage countries, they could reduce their salary expenditure while maintaining high levels of production. In this way, outsourcing was founded.

“When I was a student, I always preferred to work during the night so that freedom was another advantage.”

Edonjeta Iberhysaj, freelance architect

Outsourcing remains a common practice among businesses, as evidenced by the large number of international call centers in Kosovo. Recently, however, a new form of labor has grown to replace some of its aspects. In the gig economy, as economists have termed it, workers take on individual projects advertised by clients on internet platforms, usually without a longer contract. Often, that work takes place remotely via online technology.

For employers, this allows for dynamic adaptation to business cycles without tying up capital in fixed labor costs. For freelancers, it means an opportunity to access a job market that would otherwise require migration, as well as increased freedom to set their own working hours.

Both these aspects appealed to Edonjeta as she started to work online earlier this year.

“I had a friend who was always suggesting to me that I should work online as there is more work to be found there,” Edonjeta says. “When I was a student, I always preferred to work during the night so that freedom was another advantage.”

New skills for a new age

On a national level, online work also promises high rewards. Plagued by high unemployment and migration, Kosovo has long sought solutions that would enable citizens to find work without leaving the country.

That is why there is currently a deliberate drive among authorities and developmental agencies to increase the participation of Kosovars on gig platforms. In its Kosovo Digital Economy (KODE) program, the Ministry of Economic Development specifically mentions online freelancing as a potential source of income for unemployed and underemployed citizens.

This was also the focus of a pilot program called Women in Online Work (WOW) that was launched in 2016 by development corporation Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and local NGO MDA as part of a wider project to increase youth employment. In the pilot, around 60 women from Lipjan and Gjakova were invited to receive training in areas such as coding and graphic design with the target of finding work on an online platform. The project intended to equip participants with the necessary tools to compete in a global labor market.

“We found that many of these women particularly lacked soft skills and many did not even know that these platforms existed,” says Lea Shllaku, senior intervention manager of the Enhancing Youth Employment (EYE) project that WOW falls within. “The training teaches them both hard skills as well as how to sign up for platforms and market themselves.”

Since its inception, the project has been repeated three more times, including extending to women from other parts of the country.

Tim Sparkman, project director of EYE, says that while the digital labor market is still in its infancy, opportunities to increase participation in the labor market need to be taken, particularly with some parts of the population widely excluded from work.

“Eighty percent of women in Kosovo are not participating in the labor market at all,” Sparkman says. “That means that most work is unpaid housework. For them, online work could provide a useful part time job.”

“My dad had the same occupation his whole life, but this generation will need a variety of skills in their careers.”

Tim Sparkman, Enhancing Youth Employment

Right now, top performers can reap the rewards of newly found work opportunities. Qendrim Husaj, a 3D designer based in Peja, used to work as a baker for a monthly salary of 200 to 250 euros. Now, he says, he can earn that in just a couple of days.

“As a freelancer, I have gotten to know a lot of people from around the globe and I have a very good experience with all of them,” Husaj says. “I think that the ‘gig economy’ is a good and sustainable way of getting people to work.”

While online work may provide a welcome source of qualified work for highly skilled freelancers, those top performers are not necessarily representative of the labor force at large. The key point, according to Sparkman, is to provide an opportunity to thrive in a modern labor market.

“Work is changing,” he says. “My dad had the same occupation his whole life, but this generation will need a variety of skills in their careers.”

How sustainable?

According to its proponents, the online gig economy lowers the barriers of entry to the labor market for workers. Projects like Women in Online Work specifically target women who are unemployed or underemployed; employers, it is thought, may not be willing to offer a full time contract to someone lacking experience, but freelancing gives you a chance to get a foot in the door. This can be a particularly difficult step to take in a society with widespread nepotism, which makes it harder to start a career without the right contacts or family ties.

But while freelance platforms tout meritocracy as a guiding principle, it’s not easy to get on the ladder of success. One reason is that platforms’ algorithms rank higher rated workers at the top, leading to an exponential increase in job offers. In some instances, work is picked up by top performers only to be subcontracted to other freelancers.

For most prospective digital workers, though, the biggest obstacle to entering the market is the intense competition that a global labor market entails. In Kosovo alone, there are more workers willing to take on work than there are available contracts. On an international level, the situation is amplified, driving down wages as workers are bidding against each other to win projects.

There is also the issue of workers’ rights. In 2015, freelance platform Fiverr published a controversial ad, featuring text that read: “You eat coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

The message was clear: hard work is what makes you succeed in the gig economy. Sleep and food — not so much.

Bardha Ahmeti from digital technology NGO Lens cautions against online freelance work being seen as a sustainable answer to Kosovo’s longstanding unemployment crisis. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Internationally, labor unions and workers’ rights activists have fought battles over many years to institute benefits such as sick pay, work security and minimum wage, but the burgeoning online market is still largely untouched by regulation. In light of these issues, civil society activists have urged for caution when it comes to online work.

Bardha Ahmeti, deputy executive director of Lens, an NGO focusing on the use of technology, emphasizes that online work should not be seen as a sustainable substitute for traditional employment.

“Many jobs online are tempting to young people as they allow more freedom and the possibility of making money, but there is no social security or benefits for those who work [in the gig economy],” she says.

There is a worry that the isolated professional life of an online worker makes it difficult to react collectively against poor conditions. As there is no shared geographical locus for workers, there is a lack of natural meeting spots for organizing. As of yet, no trade unions exist specifically for digital workers.

Currently, the digital labor market’s integration into the traditional economy is also limited as it hovers above it. For instance, taxes are rarely paid in Kosovo for online work. However not all of the income generated goes straight into workers’ pockets.

“If you're a 19-year-old working online, paying taxes is not the first thing on your mind. But fees that go to private companies abroad do not help the development of the country.”

Bardha Ahmeti, Lens

Platforms take a slice of the cake for their services. One of the most popular ones, Upwork, charges 20 percent of any work done with each client up to 500 dollars. Above that, the fee is reduced to 10 percent, but the nature of the gig economy means that bigger paydays can be hard to come by as clients keep their options open to switch freelancers at will.

As Upwork makes its money from a continuous flow of transactions, it is determined to keep workers on the site. Any freelancer that comes into contact with a client through their service is tied to the site for two years, with any work exchange outside of Upwork being liable to penalties. If an employer wants to work directly with a worker — say, offering direct employment — there is an option to opt-out in exchange for 25 percent of one year’s wages.

While Upwork’s fees do impact workers’ disposable income in a way akin to taxes, they are clearly not going to the public purse. This is one of the reasons why online work needs to be formalized in order to make it a part of the national economy, Bardha Ahmeti says.

“If you’re a 19-year-old working online, paying taxes is not the first thing on your mind,” she says. “But fees that go to private companies abroad do not help the development of the country.”

“It’s stressful that you don't know how much money you’re earning.”

Arbenita Zabeli, freelance architect

Several freelancers that K2.0 spoke to mentioned the precarious job situation and the fees as a downside of platform gigs. Many hours of unpaid work go into constantly finding new contracts with transaction costs, such as the value of time spent searching for contracts, mainly falling on the shoulders of workers.

“It’s stressful that you don’t know how much money you’re earning,” says Arbenita Zabeli, an architect based in Skenderaj. “Also, [job] security is an issue but this depends on available contracts.”

Tim Sparkman at EYE agrees that the digital labor market is fraught with dangers, lacking social security benefits for workers and opportunities for collective bargaining. In the end, though, he believes that online work brings more good than bad.

“I see poverty as a constraint on possibilities,” he says. “Online work can open up more possibilities for Kosovar workers.”

To what extent digital work can be a tool for employment on a broader scale remains to be seen. Technological innovation in an age of globalization is driving the trend, with regulators struggling to catch up.

Ahmeti warns that this can lead young workers to fall into pitfalls. “I understand the severity of high unemployment [among young people],” she says. “But governmental efforts should be put into creating jobs for them, not into promoting the gig economy.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Editing by Jack Butcher.