Broad, high-level English language skills and relatively low wages have resulted in Filipino workers becoming a top choice for outside personnel for blockchain projects around the world. But is industry exploiting these workers or did remote working during the pandemic help the country grow and develop?
If you’ve ever contacted customer service for a crypto exchange, chances are you chatted with a Filipino staff member. They are highly valued by crypto projects for their strong English language skills, friendly and polite attitude – and let’s face it, dirt cheap wages.
It leaves many project leaders grappling with the ethics of paying Filipino staff a relatively pittance to save on overhead costs. Is it fair for a blockchain developer in the Philippines to be paid $ 10,000 for similar work to a blockchain developer in Australia for $ 70,000?
It’s a complicated moral question and there are no easy answers, but many Filipinos believe there are benefits on both sides. Mike Mislos, founder of the local crypto news website Bitpinas, says that people he knows appreciate the opportunity because global companies pay much higher wages than most Filipinos could otherwise earn.
“If someone gets $ 1,000 a month for development work, even if that’s less than what a junior developer in the US gets, it’s still much higher compared to the average base salary here,” he says.
An entire industry called Business Process Outsourcing has sprung up to take advantage of the nearly unique blend of job availability, cost, English language proficiency and cultural affinity in the Philippines. It is the country’s second largest economic driver, with annual sales of $ 25 billion and 1.2 million people.
A peculiar set of historical circumstances led to this point. Formerly a colony of the United States, the population remains eternally grateful that General MacArthur will keep his promise to free them from Japanese occupation during World War II. To this day, Filipinos are more pro-American than even Americans. Daily life is a mixture of Eastern and Western culture, and almost everyone speaks English, except in small rural villages.
The BPO industry began to flourish in the 1990s, with overseas companies starting to set up call centers, and now spans eight sub-sectors including back offices, software development, game development, and technical design. For decentralized blockchain projects, agencies like Cloudstaff take care of recruiting staff, making payments and handling local paperwork on site, meaning all projects have to worry about the actual work.
Leah Callon-Butler was previously the chief marketing officer for an international crypto project and she has been living in Clark (a few hours outside of Manila) since August 2018, when she flew in to spend a month working with the project’s six-person Filipino team.
“We had never met them,” she explains. “The Filipino developers were working on some pretty basic coding stuff, but they really wanted to get their teeth into the blockchain stuff.” She adds, “We just wanted to spend some quality time with them and help the mentor and train and skill them. And we just fell in love with the place. “
A matter of costs
Callon-Butler admits that the project’s decision to hire developers through CloudStaff came down to costs. The project’s ICO was completely undermined by the crypto winter in early 2018. “We couldn’t afford a team of six in Australia or Europe, but we could in the Philippines,” she says.
“It worried me: is this exploitation? But you come here and you realize that the people who work for CloudStaff, say, represent the growing middle class with all that brand new purchasing power that didn’t exist before. She adds:
“When you realize the difference in purchasing power, it’s like ‘Yes, they make much, much less than an Australian salary’. But it also costs much, much less to live here. “
For example, a cheap meal at a restaurant or even a McMeal at McDonalds will cost around $ 3 and a 1-bedroom apartment can be rented for below $ 200 a month.
She explained that Intimate.io’s senior Filipino developer was left with enough of his wages to buy two brand new cars in a year, one for him and the other for his parents:
“We said, ‘Wow. That’s pretty generous.’ And he said, ‘Well, they sold their family car to help me get to college.’ And when he got this well-paid job and progressed his career, he bought them a brand new car to say, “Thank you, Mom and Dad.” ‘
Pandemic stimulates remote working
The BPO industry has also proved invaluable to some Filipinos forced to work from home during the pandemic, explains Mark Anthony “Tony” Echem, 35. He lives in Cagayan de Oro and works remotely as an office manager for the Australian crypto trading educational site. Trader Cobb, who previously worked for the Australian telecom Telstra.
He says that his wife and he “appreciate that we were in the right position to work from home, because many people actually still adapt to these kinds of settings. But we’ve had that advantage since we’ve been doing this for a long time. He goes on to say:
“In the past, I would say five years ago, more people switched to working from home, even before the epidemic started. In my circle of friends, I would say that almost 50% have already switched to working from home. ”
“Interest has certainly grown in recent months, especially with this pandemic, as people are at home and want to learn how to earn other sources of income,” he says.
However, it hasn’t all gone smoothly, with living conditions for many who work in the BPO industry unsuitable for remote work due to overcrowding and noise pollution. The internet infrastructure is also rickety, ranking 63 out of 100 countries in the Inclusive Internet Index 2020.
Grow NFT creatures for fun and profit
A surprising development in remote earning during the pandemic was an increase in the number of Filipino residents to earn multiples of the minimum wage when playing CryptoKitties-style NFT-based blockchain game Axie Infinity.
The most dedicated players can earn up to 10,000 pesos per week by raising Axies and earning SLP tokens through their mobile phone. The Blockchain Space in the Philippines has even set up an “Axie Academy” to guide the locals in “playing to earn”.
“It’s kind of like a pandemic flight because most people in the Philippines have a cell phone,” Callon-Butler explains:
“There were some players who wanted to breed their Axies but couldn’t be bothered to play the game and do all the fighting. So a secondary market was created where all these Filipinos who were in lockdown at home, had no income and nothing else to do (found work). It was kind of a lifesaver where people couldn’t make money any other way. “
The SLP tokens were traded on Uniswap, meaning all Filipino players were given 400 UNI tokens – worth more than half a year’s wages for some. “The Uniswap thing placed them as the top-earning percentile in the provinces, an extremely wealthy person,” she says. “Suddenly, it got word that people had not only found a way to make money, but also to make serious money in the Philippines.”
External developers help development
The chance of earning relatively good wages from remote work can also help reverse the brain drain, leading millions of young Filipinos to go abroad to make money send back to their families. In addition, working remotely contributed to rapid economic growth that, until the pandemic stagnated and reduce GDP by 9.5%, had average 6.4% growth per year over the past decade.
Callon-Butler says she has seen the positive effects on society firsthand. “Cool coffee shops and bars and chic restaurants and shopping centers are popping up in response to this growing middle class that suddenly has all this disposable income,” she says. “So it’s quite incredible to see how much this international flow of capital in terms of hiring offshore personnel is literally changing the path of life.”
For Echem, the opportunities that a decentralized workforce has brought to the country could help the Philippines reach its full potential in its lifetime. “We are a third world country for now,” he says, adding:
“I really believe we are positioning ourselves as a country to at least become the first world before my generation ends. I am very optimistic about that, given the progress we have made. “