One of the awesome tailors for our suit business

One of the awesome tailors for our suit business – Like all our tailors, he sets his own rates and we pay them.

The proliferation of internet access around the world has been incredibly empowering for individuals in developing countries.  For the first time in human history, a person in a rural village in Nepal, for example, can connect directly to me in Australia and offer their services at a rate they set without intervention from a third party.

This is an extremely potent opportunity for individuals who, up until just a handful of years ago, would have had no economic opportunities outside of their home village.  However, there is also a dark side to this economy; evidence of which, I am disappointed to say, I see on every freelancing website I visit.

I’m going to elucidate my points by use of an example; last week, I posted a job on oDesk for a temporary data entry assistant.  I simply needed somebody to go through a couple of hundred emails and put information into a spreadsheet – classic low-value data entry work.  None of my usual freelancers were online, so I listed the job up for an immediate start.

Within 2 minutes, I received my first response.  30 minutes later, I checked my account to find I had over 70.  More than 70 individuals out there had taken the time to apply for my job, which I made abundantly clear was for a handful of hours only; my budget was under $10.  At this point, I felt rather guilty, because I have always been strongly against the ’99 Designs’ style ethos of making people do the work before they get paid – especially when the amount they are ultimately paid is a relative pittance.

Yet here I was, expecting maybe half a dozen people to choose from, with an inbox FULL of applicants.  So I hid the job and set to making my decision.  I was presented with a raft of options, from $8 an hour all the way down to $0.33.  THIRTY-THREE CENTS AN HOUR!  Indeed, I had five applicants who asked for less than a dollar an hour.

I felt physically ill reading these applications.  I could feel the tears welling up and I was getting chokey in my throat.  How could people possibly live on so little??  I emailed Mel some of these posts and she was equally upset “We can’t possibly hire someone for so little” she told me.  We had previously discussed in the abstract that we wouldn’t be comfortable hiring anyone for less than $2 an hour.

But here’s where I struggled; I had several people who had asked – in some cases, almost begged, to do my work for under $1 an hour (and many more under $2 an hour).  It’s surely not fair to penalise a person for bidding so cheaply on the work, when those people could probably benefit the most from such a small amount of money.

In reading through the comments for some of these freelancers, my faith in humanity was not reinforced.  The overt displays of exploitation were on display for all to see.  The names of some of the jobs “40×500 word articles, will pay .50c an article” or “Data entry task, 273 items, will pay $1” were just outrageous.  Obviously, there are many unscrupulous members of these sites that think of their freelancers as commodities to be negotiated down to the bare bones, rather than people who have families to feed and medicine to buy and a subsistence lifestyle with dreams of one day attaining what we consider to be the very basic necessities of life.

The man who offered the lowest price for his services – thirty-three cents an hour – sent the below message (I thought it extremely erudite for somebody requesting such a small amount):

Dear Hiring Sir,

          I would like to work with you through in this task.  I am very hard working person.  My typing speed is 50 wpm.  My keystrokes are also good.  I will able to work day and night whenever you want.  My rate is low and I will give you 100% accuracy.  The word that best describe me is that I am punctual.


The one that took the cake for me was a feedback comment on his profile:

47 listings added by contractor.  The contract was to enter 140 listings.  I have paid for 33.6% of the contract price being as 33.6% of the required listing amount was completed.

You might think this is reasonable, in the absence of any right of reply from the contractor.  But what really upset me about this?  The job was for a total of ONE DOLLAR.  This means the person hiring this contractor not only stiffed him 66.4 cents, but actually went to the effort of ruining his oDesk feedback – and potentially his livelihood – by telling the world that his dollar was not well-spent (despite getting 2/3 of it back).  It is, in my opinion, disgusting.

Globalisation is generally a good thing.  The expansion of global market opportunities, travel, culture, diversification are all fantastic.  But globalisation is not always peachy – there are many evils associated with it, too – people trafficking, sex tourism, proliferation of weapons, drug smuggling, child labour and general exploitation of third-world workers.

If you think that a person of oDesk charging 50 cents an hour is happy with that rate and their general position in life, you’ve got rocks in your head.  While the living wage in a country like Bangladesh or Pakistan is not high, 50 cents an hour is nothing short of exploitation – however you cut it.  Now I’m not suggesting people stop hiring contractors at 50 cents, or even 33 cents an hour – lord knows these are the guys who ned the work the most.  However, I think it is our responsibility as citizens of wealthy ‘sophisticated’ countries, to ensure that our brothers and sisters in faraway lands have an opportunity to better themselves and improve their position in life insofar as we can afford it.

A few cents here and there is not going to be the difference for us, but it very well could be for a kid in Karachi.

So what did we do with our job?  Well you can’t help everyone (hard as it is to accept this sometimes) but we decided to hire a woman in Bangladesh who quoted us 67 cents an hour and seemed up to the task.  She had no feedback and I really wanted to assist her to get a foothold on oDesk.  I had some trouble conveying the task to her, and she was very slow in completing it, but once she understood her standard of work was ok.  She took 6 hours for a task that should have taken 2 to 3 hours, but nonetheless we ended up giving her a bonus of an additional 6 hours – $8 in total for us – not a lot, but enough to make a difference to her.  And I got my work done – mostly.

Then there was the question of feedback.  The work turned in was about 80% complete; it saved me a lot of time, but I still had to finish off about half an hour’s work after it was turned in.  A lot of hirers on oDesk would view this as a failure “I paid her to do the whole job, not 80% of it!!” but it’s really important to view this in context; if you are willing to pay a reasonable wage for a job like this, then you are allowed to have expectations of a good job.

If you elect to pay 67c an hour, then you’re probably going to get patchy work.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise.  So I left some highly constructive feedback, explaining that Morsheda (that’s her name) is capable and very hardworking – but would benefit from very clear instructions that she can (and will) follow to the letter.  4.5 stars!

I do not believe in this quasi-imperialist superiority complex held by some of the Westerners on the internet that they can somehow hold workers in least-developed countries to the same standards they expect of servers at their local Burger King. THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS, GUYS!  If you’re going to outsource your work for 2% of the cost, sometimes you have to be happy with 50% of the output.  To most external observers, that would look like a bargain.

So here are my key points to hiring a cheap freelancer (obviously different lessons apply to the rockstars):

– There is a close correlation between price and capacity:

  • Do not expect the same quality of work from a contractor asking $1 an hour as a contractor asking $8 an hour; you will be disappointed.
  • When your $1 an hour contractor fails to live up to unrealistic expectations, don’t take it out on the poor contractor, but take a look at yourself and ask “Am I exploiting this person? Have they given me value for my $1 an hour?” If they have, then they deserve good feedback – everything needs to be viewed in its own context.

– Directions are everything:

  • For simple tasks, investing a bit in a clear roadmap and expectations will save you a LOT of time and energy in the long run.

– People REALLY want to do a good job:

  • I have yet to meet a freelancer with a poor work ethic.
  • These guys come from a different place and often require a small investment of your time to get thinking how you need them to think. But if you make that investment, it will pay off in spades.

– Don’t be a dick:

  • Think of yourself as an ambassador for the developed world.  You’ve been lucky enough to win the lottery and land in a place where you get to be relatively rich by simply being born.  Now don’t take advantage of those that haven’t and have to commit their working lives to trying to get out of a terribly low standard of living, with no access to all those services (education, healthcare, sanitation) you’ve taken for granted your whole life.
  • If you’re in a very poor country like Kenya or Nepal or Nicaragua and you’re on oDesk selling your services, you’re a motivated self-starter.  If such a person was born in the US or a similar meritocracy, they’d probably be on the path to millionairedom with the traits they possess, rather than begging for crumbs on the internet.  Respect that, and respect them.

So that’s my perspective – feel free to agree or disagree, I love a good argument.  But bear this in mind: if you think it’s acceptable to pay 33 cents an hour just because that’s what they quote you, I will think you are a dick and a terrible person.  You’ve been warned.

On that note, I did offer that guy a gig doing something else, as I want to rehabilitate his feedback for him.  He has yet to respond – I will let you know.