The widespread, highly skilled English language proficiency and relatively low wages have made Filipino workers the first choice for teleworkers in blockchain projects worldwide. But does the industry that exploits these workers help or did remote working during the pandemic contribute to the growth and development of the country?
If you’ve ever contacted customer service to share cryptographic data, chances are you’ve contacted a Filipino employee. They are highly valued by cryptocurrency projects for their good English skills, friendly and polite attitude – and, let’s face it, their meager salaries.
Many project managers therefore wonder if they should pay Filipino workers relatively low salaries to save on overhead costs. Is it fair that a blockchain developer in the Philippines gets $10,000 for similar work while an Australian blockchain developer makes $70,000?
It is a difficult moral issue and there is no easy answer, but many Filipinos believe that both parties benefit. Mike Mislos, founder of local news site Bitpinas crypto, says the people he knows appreciate the opportunity because international companies pay much higher salaries than most Filipinos would otherwise earn.
If someone gets $1,000 a month for development, that’s less than a junior developer earns in the U.S., but it’s still much more than the average base salary here, he says.
An entire industry, called business process outsourcing, has emerged to take advantage of the Philippines’ almost unique combination of labor availability and cost, command of English and cultural affinity. With annual sales of $25 billion and 1.2 million employees, it is the second largest contributor to the country’s economy.
A special confluence of historical circumstances has led to this moment. The people of the United States, a former colony, are eternally grateful to General MacArthur for fulfilling his promise to free them from Japanese occupation during World War II. To this day, Filipinos are more pro-American than Americans themselves. Daily life is a mixture of eastern and western culture and almost everyone speaks English, except in the small rural villages.
The BPO industry began to flourish in the 1990s, when foreign companies began to open call centers. It now includes eight sub-sectors, including back-office, software development, game development and technical design. With decentralized blockchain projects, agencies like Cloudstaff handle on-site staffing, payments, and local paperwork, so projects only require you to worry about the actual work.
Leah Callon-Butler was previously the marketing manager for the Crypto International Project, and has been living in Clark (a few hours from Manila) since August 2018, when she flew out to spend a month working with six Filipino members of the project team.
We never met her, she says. The Filipino girls were working on basic coding, but they really wanted to cut their teeth on a lockdown. She adds: We just wanted to spend time with them and help guide, educate and train them. And we fell in love with the place.
Callon-Butler acknowledges that the project’s decision to hire developers through CloudStaff had to do with cost. In early 2018, the cryptowinter completely toppled the project’s ICO. We couldn’t afford to have a six-person team in Australia or Europe, but we could in the Philippines, she says.
This is what worried me: Is it exploitation? But when you come here, you realize that the people who work at CloudStaff, for example, represent a growing middle class that has a whole new level of spending power that didn’t exist before. She adds:
If you understand the difference in purchasing power, it’s called: Yes, they earn much, much less than the Australian salary. But it’s also much, much cheaper to live here.
For example, a cheap lunch at a restaurant or even a McMeal at McDonalds costs about $3, and a one-bedroom apartment can be rented for less than $200 a month.
She explained that a senior Filipino developer at Intimate.io had enough money from his salary to buy two new cars in one year – one for himself and one for his parents:
We said: Wow. That’s pretty generous. And he said: Well, yeah, they sold the family car to pay for my college. And when he got a good job and his career progressed, he bought a brand new car to thank Mom and Dad.
Pandemic extends operation at a distance
The BPO industry has also proved invaluable to some Filipinos who had to work from home during the pandemic, says Mark Anthony Tony Ehem, 35. He lives in Cagayan de Oro and works remotely as an office manager for the Australian crypto trading education website Trader Cobb, having previously worked for the Australian telecommunications company Telstra.
He says he and his wife appreciate that we were in the right position to work from home, as many people still have to get used to that. But we already had that advantage because we’ve been doing this for a long time. He keeps talking:
I would say that in the last five years, even before the epidemic started, more and more people have started working from home. In my circle of friends, I would say that almost 50% have already switched to working from home.
Interest has certainly increased in recent months, especially with this pandemic, as people sit at home and want to learn how to make money from other sources, he says.
However, it has not all been plain sailing and the living conditions of many BPO workers are not conducive to remote working due to overcrowding and noise pollution. The internet infrastructure is also vulnerable, ranking 63rd out of 100 countries on the Inclusive Internet Index 2020.
Cultivation of NFT creatures for pleasure and profit
A surprising development in remote income during the pandemic was the increase in the number of Filipinos earning multiple times the minimum wage by playing Axie Infinity, a CryptoKitties blockchain game based on NFT.
Hardcore players can earn up to 10,000 pesos per week by making axes and earning SLP tokens with their mobile phones. The Philippine blockchain space even launched the Axie Academy to train locals in the winning game.
During the pandemic, it took off a bit because most Filipinos have cell phones, Callon-Butler says:
Some players wanted to grow their axe, but didn’t want to play the game and do all the fighting. This has created a secondary market where all these Filipinos who are stuck in cramped quarters in their homes have no income and nothing else to do (find work). It was a kind of lifeline when people couldn’t make money any other way.
The SLP chips were traded on Uniswap, which meant that all Filipino players got rid of up to 400 UNI chips, which for some of them was more than half a year’s salary. Uniswap placed her at the top of the list as the highest percentile in the province in terms of income, an extremely wealthy man, she says. Suddenly, word got out that the Filipinos had not only found a way to make money, but a way to make a lot of money.
remote developer support
The ability to earn a relatively good salary by telecommuting can also help reverse the brain drain that has sent millions of young Filipinos abroad to earn money to send home to their families. In addition, telecommuting supports rapid economic growth, which increased by an average of 6.4% per year over the past decade until the pandemic caused GDP to fall by 9.5%.
Callon-Butler says she has seen firsthand the positive impact on the community. Cool cafes and bars, trendy restaurants and shopping malls are sprouting up in response to a growing middle class that suddenly has plenty of disposable income, she says. So it’s amazing how this international capital flow literally changes the course of life in terms of hiring these offshore workers.
For Echem, the opportunities offered by the country’s decentralized workforce could help the Philippines reach its full potential during its lifetime. So far we are a third world country, he said, adding further:
I think our country is positioning itself to be at least first world by the end of my generation. With the progress we are making, I am very optimistic about that.
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