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[OPINION] Small: The woes of the freelance creative market

Mur Florendo

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[OPINION] Small: The woes of the freelance creative market

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'One would think that a company trying to hire Filipino writers to cut on labor costs would at least have human decency. Instead, they have the audacity to expect quality work for peanuts.'

Somewhere in between my hopes and dreams is my need to survive, which means I am one of many writers hungry for gigs. If you’ve ever tried applying to content mills or posting professional profiles for the chance to get noticed, you’d know that it is never a one-two done step. Some companies that reach out to you ignore the references and years of experience by sending you assessments. Others would ask you to write (unpaid) samples instead of going through your portfolio. 

My years of “the grind” have taught me that these are not the companies anyone should work with. 

There is a growing number of companies that need writers but don’t have the budget to hire locally. One would think that a company trying to hire Filipino writers to cut on labor costs would at least have human decency. Instead, they have the audacity to expect quality work for peanuts. 

The average American freelance writer can charge from $0.10-$1.00 per word. The higher the expertise, the higher the price. For some time, the beginner rate of Filipino writers started at “piso per word.” That is 0.018 cents USD as of 2023. The sad part? Some experienced writers still stick to this rate. The even sadder part? Some beginner writers take work for less.

For a while, I’ve accepted this as the norm. I’ve justified it with ideas that, in hindsight, no longer make sense. 

I’d think, “The cost of living is different in other countries. So of course they’d be paid more.” That stopped making sense knowing that writers overseas are being paid a livable wage in their country while Filipino writers need twice the work for half the price to survive in our country. 

Another argument was, “They have better education over there, so of course they’d be paid more.” I have a Bachelor’s degree in Communication. Most Filipino writers are degree holders in similar fields. To be a freelance writer overseas, you don’t even have to go to college. And it’s not like them being foreign proves that they are more knowledgeable in the simplest requirements of writing, like good grammar. The Philippines ranks 22 out of 111 countries in English proficiency.  

Why, then, do we think we deserve less than? 

Let’s break down the system that’s in play for us. Why is it standard that experienced Filipino writers still need to take a grammar assessment? How come a degree, course training certificates, years of experience, and an extensive portfolio still require a writing test? Is this the way all writers are assessed regardless of country of origin? 

The answer is no.

This answer was something that came from deep self-reflection. I do not come from a well-off family, but I was lucky to have gone to an International high school on full scholarship. While half of my classmates were Filipino, half were from different parts of the world, who came to the Philippines to learn English. High school taught me many things, but one of the negative life lessons to come from it is that one can experience racism in their own country.

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I can understand that my classmates were still learning English, so a sort of buddy system was in place for group studies. I didn’t mind helping my classmates out in that way. But they did get special treatment in other ways. Filipino students got in trouble for things international students got away with. Teachers expected more from us, and was thus more lax with them. We were taught to show kindness and understanding to the international students because of our differences, but not the other way around.

The problem was not the international students. It wasn’t their fault they were being treated better. It was the system that was at fault. The system had created a barrier beyond language proficiency. The administration had set the standard, and we all complied.

This system taught us that the world is big, and the solution to harmonious living is to make yourself smaller. Be less so that others can have more. Take less because you are small. That is the natural order. 

I am inclined to believe that at least once in your career (or life even), you were taught to be small because of race, appearance, gender, educational background, beliefs etc. Historically, us Filipinos have made ourselves small to “welcome” colonizers, thus experiencing racism in our own country. 

The same goes for the world of the open market for freelance creatives. 

However, I believe fate creates patterns in order for people to recognize them and break them. Generations before me have tolerated this system and passed it on. I tolerated this system as a child in unfamiliar territory. As an adult with a bigger view of the world, I don’t think I’d like to tolerate it any further.

My reflections are not targeted at the people who have created this system. They are meant for beginner writers with “less than” rates. They are for the veteran writers who believe in “the grind.” They are for the novelists, social media specialists, and content marketers who’ve spent hours learning through online courses and spent years building a portfolio. 

Filipino writers, you are being treated poorly not because of competition, not because of your educational background, and not because foreign writers are “better at it,” but because you are being discriminated against. 

I am aware that not everybody has the same privilege to reject work. When I began as a freelancer, I took on “piso per word” projects. Three years in, I make enough to reject low-paying jobs. And since the economy has changed, I expected the “piso per word” standard to change as well. But it hasn’t. In fact, some rates are now significantly lower. The system is broken, and more and more writers now believe that the solution is to become even smaller.

I’m not telling you to reject every job offer because of low rates. I’m asking that you stop minimizing your own potential. Even beginners don’t deserve five hours’ worth of work plus back-and-forth revisions for pay that doesn’t even cover the bills.

Don’t take on every project that comes your way with open arms. Negotiate the pay or the working conditions. Find clients that are easier to work with. Skip the sketchy posts. Apply for the higher paying gigs. If you’re having trouble finding good places to start, write a blog. Enter your stories in writing forums for tips. Submit your essays online. Do discounted work for family, friends, or small businesses that you want to support. It’s all still low pay, but at least you won’t be lining the pockets of companies that want to take advantage of the broken system. 

Opportunities exist. Find them or make them, and believe you deserve them. Have the audacity to take up space.

The world is big. It’s only going to get bigger. But that doesn’t make you small. It means there’s plenty of space to grow. Don’t let the world make you believe you can’t fit. There’s enough space for everybody. –

Mur Florendo is an SEO researcher and writer by day and an aspiring spoken word poet and novelist with more drafts than final products. When they are not writing, they spend their time reading, painting, and having conversations with their cats.

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